Beware of Pirates! How to Avoid Bootleg Blu-rays and DVDs

Overview, the Public Domain and Spotting Fakes

  • Avast, me hearties! There be pirates and bootleggers on the horizon
  • They’ve been robbing honest traders for years but it’s time to make them walk the plank
  • Here’s how ye can steer clear of buying their rip-off wares and swelling their coffers with ill-gotten gains

Pirates, bootlegs, counterfeits, forgeries, fakes… call them what you will, bootleggers and pirateers are a fact of life – always have been and always will be. But they pose a real threat in this age of niche, legitimate, classic film DVD and Blu-ray companies operating on slender profit margins and struggling to simply survive. Modern production methods mean the rip-offs are getting ever harder to spot, so here’s your guide to avoiding spending good money on bad merchandise.

Beware of Pirates sign


The background to piracy

Bootlegged and pirated products have been profiting greedy thieves for hundreds of years – in fact for as long as the concept of copyright has existed. They come in any recorded format: books, LPs, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays, internet files, etc. Though they’re often used interchangeably, there are actually distinctions between the most commonly used terms:

  • Bootlegs are unofficial releases of otherwise unavailable but copyrighted material, eg live recordings, TV and radio broadcasts, etc.
  • Pirates are copies, usually repackaged, of commercially released material and are designed to fool the buying public into mistaking them for official releases. The official versions may sometimes be deleted and attracting high prices secondhand or unreleased at all in certain countries, thus driving up the demand for cheap copies.
  • Counterfeits mimic specific, released products and try to pass themselves off as the real thing. Forgeries would be another word for them. Producers and distributors of these are thieves of the purest stripe and have been around for nearly as long – but are more resilient – than cockroaches.

In practise, these definitions are often blurred, as many copyright thieves’ activities and their products can fit two or more categories, but they generally hold true. The bulk of the world’s fakes hail from places where the relevant laws are lax or practically non-existent; Africa, Asia and South America are among the biggest offenders. Surprisingly, despite Spain and Italy being part of the EU, their record on enforcement is pretty abysmal too: copyright infringement is open and rife there.

“If what they’re doing is illegal, why don’t the copyright holders take the pirates to court and shut them down?” I hear you ask. Good question – and often they do. Some companies protect their properties rigorously (Disney defend theirs more zealously than Fáfnir) but it costs a lot of time and money to pursue legal action. For most big companies it’s just not worth it and the smaller companies would love to but don’t have the resources. It makes far better sense for them to focus on investing in new product. Of course, any legal action would also have to be taken out individually under the laws of each pirate’s home country; the same country whose hopelessly inept copyright laws allow them to flourish in the first place. The sheer volume of offenders makes the task of targeting each one practically ineffective, much like music swapping online. After all that, even if someone does successfully sue, the process of collecting damages can be unending, to say nothing of enforcing a recall of discs still on the market.

The situation in Spain and Italy is so widespread and deeply entrenched that legit companies have pretty much given up on trying to police it. Pirates are sold in major high street retailers and are effectively the de facto releases. Sadly, as a result legit companies often completely skip those countries when it comes to official releases, as they know pirate copies will almost inevitably be rushed out and undercut them anyway. Catch 22.

Fáfnir doing his best impression of Disney. Art by Andre Kosslick, 2010.

A line often trotted out in justification by the customers/supporters of bootlegging is that if studios would only get their acts together and release what the public (read: a handful of collectors) want, they’d kill off the market for piracy. That viewpoint is misguided at best and a complete lie at worst. Product that has been officially released, no matter how niche, is what’s most easily accessible to pirates and therefore most likely to be stolen.

Incidentally, much of what’s written here also applies to popular video sharing sites like YouTube. To facilitate the takedown of offending videos, proving ownership is seldom a simple process and it’s always a time consuming one. Regardless, as soon as one upload is successfully removed, two more will pop up to take its place. It then becomes a frustrating, unending game of whack-a-mole and it’s unsurprising that ultimately many copyright holders simply give up.

Often, especially in the area that we’re concerned with here – early and classic films – the overall potential sales for each title are numbered in the hundreds or very low thousands. On a global scale this is peanuts in terms of revenue; we’re not talking the millions of units shifted by the latest Hobbit Potter and the Jurassic Transformers blockbuster here. So the pirates fly neatly under the radar of the big boys while critically wounding the niche labels we all know and love: your Eurekas, Criterions, Milestones, etc. Ultimately this means less money to fund preservation, restorations and new releases.

Supporters of piracy like to paint the offenders as latter-day Robin Hood figures, perpetuating a benign, victimless crime and often helping put obscure works of art back into the hands of a deserving public, where it belongs. None of this is true; in fact the reality is the exact opposite. In any form and on any scale, piracy creates victims on all sides, except for the thieves who actually profit from it. The excellent book, Knockoff: The Deadly Trade in Counterfeit Goods (2005/2007), by Tim Phillips demonstrates this in great detail. Quote: “If counterfeiting was a business, it would be the world’s biggest and twice the size of its nearest competitor.”

To reiterate: these days rip-off product is often unlikely to loudly announce its existence due to cheap looking manufacturing or printing. Affordable and efficient technology allows the pirateers to quickly and cheaply churn out copies of apparent good quality, with high resolution scans of original film promotional artwork easily downloaded for adorning their sleeves. Often within weeks of titles being legitimately released, their forgeries are up for sale en masse and a veneer of respectability is granted by being sold via established outlets like Amazon and eBay.

Public domain companies

There is a fourth (or perhaps equal third) party at play in this arena: those who sell material that is out of copyright and in the public domain (PD). That is to say, works whose copyrights have expired, either because the original rights holders failed to renew them at the appropriate time, or because sufficient time has elapsed since the death of the author or principal creators. The criteria distinguishing PD material can be quite complicated as they often vary from country to country. For instance, all works published in the US prior to January 1, 1923 are PD, but there are some exceptions, such as films that underwent certain restoration or had a copyrighted musical soundtrack added. Unpublished works are under federal copyright for at least the life of the author plus 70 years. Works published with notice of copyright or registered in unpublished form on or after January 1, 1923, and prior to January 1, 1964, had to be renewed during the 28th year of their first term of copyright to maintain copyright for a full 95-year term.

To complicate matters further, very often peddlers of bootlegged and pirated discs will falsely claim that film and TV works are out of copyright when they clearly are not. It’s a crude tactic but in most cases it muddies the waters enough for them to continue unhindered. The early films of Alfred Hitchcock are a particularly egregious example of this, making him easily the most bootlegged classic filmmaker ever. Either way, purveyors of genuinely PD discs are not breaking any laws and they’re often the only way to cheaply acquire otherwise commercially unviable titles. Vast numbers of PD films are available in restored, high quality editions from some of the best labels in the world; they’re the ones you should seek out.  There are also countless bottom-feeding labels who specialise in releasing PD material from any source they can get their hands on. In the US the biggest include the likes of Synergy Ent, Alpha, GoodTimes, Madacy, Mill Creek and VCI, though the latter two have progressively moved towards also selling quality licensed product.

Even here there are some caveats: first and foremost is I’ve yet to find a PD company without a large proportion of copyrighted titles on its books. Even when a particular work actually is PD, the transfer used may very well have been stolen from someone else’s restored print and still be at least morally questionable. Also, the overall quality of PD releases can be variable at best, as their producers most often do not spend money on obtaining rare prints, expensive restorations, extra features, etc. This can lead to disgruntled customers shelling out for discs whose audio and video quality fall way below their expectations. Another downside to PD companies’ activities is that an already limited market for a title that is flooded with el cheapo copies can effectively kill the demand for a high quality restored edition. Here are some screenshots of supposedly PD DVDs versus restored, good quality ones. Of course, when the restored releases themselves get pirated, it’s in much lower quality than the original and they’re overwhelmingly likely to be shorn of any extra features. Basically, the line between PD companies and outright pirates is often a very blurry one indeed.

How to spot the fakes

Pirated discs often conform to the following:

  • There are usually no proper, up-to-date studio logos or copyright credits anywhere on the discs or sleeves. Comparing them to similar releases from other countries will give an indication of what they should show. Note that for some semblance of credibility, occasionally rear sleeves will have the name or logo of the original studio that made the film. Such info is easily found via the likes of Wikipedia, IMDb or in the films’ credits, and for works upwards of a century old that may have changed ownership many times, often doesn’t bear any relation to the current rights holders.
  • Pirate companies generally have a lack of any credible internet presence, with no websites (or cheap-looking, barely functional ones), social media accounts or online stores. They’re often, for all intents and purposes, incommunicado.
  • Outside of their native countries, pirated discs are shifted chiefly via online stores like Amazon and eBay – both of which do virtually nothing to stop them.
  • Many titles are from studios not normally known for licensing to other labels or at the very least, have never previously appeared on another label.
  • Most European pirates have been issued on pressed discs in the past, but latterly are appearing increasingly often on recordable BD-Rs or DVD-Rs.
  • Audio and video on a single disc can be ripped from multiple sources, but pirate companies never release anything hitherto publicly unavailable.
  • Pirate copies very rarely contain any extras but when they do it’s even rarer they’ll consist of anything substantial or officially unavailable.
  • When a pirate Blu-ray is released of a film that cannot be bought physically in HD, there’s no guarantee as to the quality of its transfer: many actually contain rips of VHS videos or TV broadcasts. You’d be amazed at how many Blu-rays (and DVDs, obviously) are lifted directly from YouTube – really! Rubbish in, rubbish out. Usually though, the source will be an upscaled DVD, obviously with zero improvement in quality. Occasionally, alternative sources may be a downloaded HD TV broadcast or rip from a legitimate online streaming service, such as Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. Such is the case with a Spanish Blu-ray featuring a 720p HD TV rip of Ryan’s Daughter (1970). If you’re that desperate to get hold of it you may as well cut out the middleman and download it yourself. Or on second thoughts, don’t.
  • Pirate discs are almost always single-layered, compressing the original files to a lower quality, and any Blu-rays will usually have lossy, space-saving Dolby Digital audio. The official releases they’re copied from will most often be dual-layered, where necessary, and almost invariably have lossless, full quality PCM, DTS-HD MA or Dolby TrueHD audio.
  • Most pirates forego region coding, though their sleeves may sometimes spuriously claim otherwise, and DVDs are usually in the NTSC format, which is playable anywhere. This enables them to be pushed to the broadest market possible. Even when DVDs are actually in the PAL format, very often they’ll be copied from an NTSC source: DVDs, VHS tapes and TV broadcasts. As no dedicated PAL master is used, this results in NTSC-PAL artefacting.

Most of the above also applies to bootlegs and the last two points in particular also apply to budget PD releases.

It’s also worth noting that French, Spanish and Italian pirates typically add dubs of their own languages to foreign films, usually those made in English. Said dubs are lifted from VHS videos, TV broadcasts, or the internet and will often have originally been recorded to conform to an edited version of the film. That being the case, the transfer used for the pirate copy will also be edited to fit the added soundtrack.

If an eBay dealer suddenly has seemingly unlimited quantities of a formerly officially released but now-deleted and expensive title, it’s well worth checking before you bite on any too-good-to-be-true bargains. If it isn’t being sold by anyone else, chances are it’s a fake. One dead giveaway is if you check their recently sold listings and they’ve already shifted several ‘new’ copies, all with the exact same photo. Now, unless there are a whole bunch of lucky guys with unopened boxfuls of rare, deleted DVDs, you can bet your life they’re bootleggers.

Part 2: Pirate Companies and Distribution


  1. Bernard
    August 25, 16:46 Reply
    Hi, thank you for a great article. First time here. I have one question, regarding the final example (Fritz Lang's "M") : Is the 4K BD a pirate version of Eureka!'s work, if we consider that "M" (1931) is in the public domain? (assuming no extra content / commentary still under copyright is included in the 4K BD) The strange thing IMO is that restoration strives to make the blu-ray as faithful to the original as possible, therefore not creating a new piece of art, i.e. not starting again the clock of copyright protection! If the 4K version is not piracy, I think there should be introduced in legal systems worlwide a provision to protect restoration of films, granting , say, 10 years protection against unauthorized copy.
    • Brent Reid
      August 27, 17:59 Reply
      Hi Bernard, the Studio 4K BD is definitely a pirate, as are all their releases. Unusually for a pirate, it also appears to include Eureka’s copyrighted extras. You raise an interesting point, re copyrighting restored public domain works, but that’s a separate issue, outside the scope of this article and one I've discussed elsewhere on this site. Studio 4K currently have around 50 pirated BDs for sale; just the European pirates collectively have thousands of ripped-off titles. The overwhelming majority of these are studio-owned, non-public domain works and the pirates are not benevolently reproducing and distributing cultural artifacts for the good of the people. They’re working for private profit, thieving from the work of others that they know are both soft and lucrative targets.
  2. Bruce Calvert
    October 14, 18:45 Reply
    Excellent article Brent. Although David Shepard did not have the resources to go after Passport Video for pirating his restorations, they made the mistake of pirating some Elvis Presley films.
  3. Spencer Gorman
    February 27, 12:42 Reply
    There is an obvious way to curtail pirating. In a time where the big companies have moved to digital copies they have done so for a reason, and companies like Disney have resorted to Disney rewards, those coupons packaged inside a product that can be redeemed by the consumer for points...this is the direction of security for the 'majors' ....the smaller production of as you say 'labor of love' projects should learn something from all of this. If no digital copy or reward point is enclosed the product is FAKE...Even a labor of love film should have a way to provide a digital copy online...that is not an expensive proposition and if you do not want bootleggers at your door then one needs to take precautions that help prevent them from stealing from you and without these digital copies and or rewards in their products it becomes much more actionable when they are caught. The bigger issue is that the buying public needs to be taught what is and us not 'authentic'.
    • Brent Reid
      February 29, 21:12 Reply
      Hmm... but Spencer, Disney are one of the biggest, richest entertainment companies in the world. Very few can do what they do, on any level. I simply don't think what you suggest is practical or would work, both before or after the act of piracy. The most effective way to stem – not stop – the thieving is to educate those that care about not ripping off legit goods, so they'll stop buying them. That's something I've attempted to do with this article.
  4. Lea S.
    March 13, 16:17 Reply
    What a fantastic, immensely useful article, packed with all the detail you could need! Thank you. There's so much confusion out there about the issues of public domain, bootlegging, the copyrights on different restorations, etc. All this talk of the piracy problem reminds me of the old-time solution to rival studios stealing films--studios would set a copy of their logo somewhere on the actual set. You see the little "AB" often in Biograph films, usually sitting on a shelf or some wainscoting.
    • Brent Reid
      March 19, 09:51 Reply
      Thank you for your kind words, Lea. I'm pleased you find it useful. Sadly, these days logo planting’s modern equivalent, watermarking, does little to stop the pirates: if they can’t source ‘clean’ copies they steal anyway. Its intrusiveness on the image has also proved very unpopular with buyers of kosher releases – and they do have a point.
  5. Richard Perl
    March 20, 18:36 Reply
    I've always thought No Shame were a legitimate company - many of their releases, both from their defunct US arm and Italian are exclusive to them, with proper aspect ratio and technical specs and evidence of restoration/remastering. In addition, their dvds often include their own custom-made extras. Are you confusing them with Mya Communications, run by some former No Shame employees, who have released many dubiously sourced discs in the US?
    • Brent Reid
      March 22, 13:10 Reply
      Hi Richard, NoShame are just as you describe, but a long time ago they inadvertently released some suspect titles, due to the shady activities of a couple of ex-partners in the business. The article has now been amended to reflect new info supplied to me.
  6. Richard
    September 10, 19:32 Reply
    Hi, do the German company KSM make good quality dvd's? I want the Clark Gable film Call of the wild which should be on 20th century fox, but the German dvd is on KSM. I've never heard of KSM so wanted to know if they're OK. Thanks.
    • Brent Reid
      September 12, 23:25 Reply
      Hi Richard, as I said in the article, UK and German releases are generally fine. KSM are a reputable company who sell officially licensed studio product. If you check them out according to the criteria above, you'll see they have a large, professionally-produced <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">website</a> with full contact details and a <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Facebook page</a>, so they're hardly underground. I hope you enjoy your DVD!
  7. Julian
    November 03, 07:48 Reply
    In your latest update you wrote that companies backed away from signing contracts with certain so called pirate distributors - was this about sub-licensing? Because I think some of them are trying to go legit, for example in Spain, where they seem to have established in niche markets. There are even exclusive stores.
    • Brent Reid
      November 03, 19:08 Reply
      Hi Julian, said companies backed away from longstanding pirates who clearly have no wish "to go legit". To avoid muddying the waters with speculation and hearsay, can you supply examples and evidence of your claims please?
      • Julian
        November 03, 23:00 Reply
        Right now I'm on vacation in Spain, and I stumbled upon this topic because I was shopping in a movie store.with quite a good selection. I also talked with an employee and he told me about the business model and they actually sell Major Studio editions. <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a> - Can't copy link here.
        • Brent Reid
          November 06, 21:30 Reply
          You're arguing the very point I made: that pirates are sold openly in high street stores – and you're supporting it. Following your link, all but a handful of the companies whose wares they sell are pirates, as listed above.
  8. Cory
    November 23, 03:52 Reply
    Are you sure about Cult Media in Italy? They have a lot of releases that are unique to them, not on BD in any other country, so I'm not sure where they'd be stealing from. They do mention the rights holders' on the backs of their cases as well. I'd welcome evidence one way or another to know for sure.
    • Brent Reid
      October 28, 06:45 Reply
      Yes I'm quite sure, Cory, and have had it confirmed from several different sources. Releasing a film otherwise unavailable on BD is no guarantee it's actually in HD or not stolen from elsewhere. It's all in the article.
  9. Stevie
    April 26, 16:32 Reply
    Hi there, just thought I'd stick in my six penny worth regarding Ermitage. I've read a lot about the cardinal signs of pirate products and producers, but Ermitage seem to contradict them on several points. They always specify a region, they have a strong online presence, and sponsor cinema events in Italy. They specify that they are using restored materials where this is the case ( Of course maybe they're pirating restored product...). Granted they don't specify audio details on the cases but overall they don't seem the obvious choice for a pirate company like many others you describe in detail in the blog....your thoughts?
    • Brent Reid
      June 21, 18:51 Reply
      Ermitage contradict nothing. If you read my article thoroughly you'll see it answers each of the points you specify. At least as far as their home video range is concerned, they're pirates.
      • Stevie
        June 22, 10:49 Reply
        Well....thanks for that comprehensive answer - I guess I should be grateful you left one of my comments intact after deleting the rest as you do kindly told me in your e mail. Is it really a circular argument when I and others point out issues in your arguments? You set the rules for pirates and say they ALWAYS do such and such and then when an exception is pointed out you seem to stamp your feet, delete comments and just say 'refer to my earlier posts'. That doesn't really answer WHY Ermitage present their product in a way you say quite clearly they WOULDN'T if they were pirates. Why couldn't you just say there are occasional exceptions to your golden rules? I think I've proven my earlier point that you seem to want things all ways when making your arguments, and really don't want people posting comments that question your arguments, as several people have done... [redacted for legal reasons]
        • Brent Reid
          October 28, 16:40 Reply
          Where on earth have I said anything about "always", as in unwaveringly, or "golden rules"? You're twisting my words – a pretty foolish thing to do when they're written here for everyone to see. You posted six irrelevant, trolling comments without waiting for my reply to the first one, hence my deleting them. You're also twisting yourself in knots to disprove the existence of bootlegs without supplying a single shred of evidence supporting your assertions. So Ermitage sponsor Italian cinema events? Notorious bootlegger Moravioff <em>owned</em> a chain of Italian cinemas! Reasoned debate, especially backed by evidence, is welcome here; trolling is not. As you seem to have only the latter to offer, please avoid this site in future and enjoy your bootlegs in peace.
  10. Maestro
    June 30, 05:21 Reply
    Pardon my disbelief here but regards to Shout Factory claiming that pirates are copying their releases....are they 100% sure of that? Maybe it's bootleggers selling DVD-R's of their upcoming releases because when something does become legitimately available, people tend to buy the legit release with all its extra features. As a collector myself, I've bought bootlegs of movies that are NOT readily available because I don't have all my damn life to wait for someone to finally release movies I want to see. Many films have been forgotten throughout the VHS era and long into the DVD/BD era as we only recently got legit releases of movies such as THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF and BLOOD & LACE. So pardon me if I'm not waiting until my last dying breath for some "out of the woodwork" company like Shout Factory (where were they 17 years ago?) decides to get these films released. Also, I and many other collectors, throw away the boots in favor of the legit release. Duh!
    • Brent Reid
      October 28, 06:30 Reply
      Shout! Factory know their business – and who's ripping them off – perfectly well. You're entitled to support bootlegging, as many do, but strange that you should be so unapologetic, even proud of the fact.
  11. Collector
    August 12, 00:51 Reply
    VHSPS is also another horrible offender. Their way of thinking is, "If it's not on dvd, then it's ok for us to put it on dvd." Somebody please shut those guys down.
    • Brent Reid
      October 28, 06:19 Reply
      Good call! Theirs is one of the most spurious uses of the word "preservation" that I've ever come across. Copyright thieves and profiteers indeed.
  12. Richie
    September 07, 19:38 Reply
    I'm looking for No way to treat a lady (1968) on region 2. The only one I've seen is Italian, made by sinisterfilm. This sounds like a bootleg. Do you know if it's a good quality properly-pressed dvd. Thanks.
    • Brent Reid
      September 08, 01:28 Reply
      Hi Richie, The Sinister's a boot alright. Your only present options are the <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener nofollow noreferrer">US region 1 DVD</a> or watching a digital version (in HD!), like those on <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener nofollow noreferrer">Amazon Video UK</a> or <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener nofollow noreferrer">US</a>.
  13. Extract
    February 21, 23:55 Reply
    The dead giveaway test for bootlegs is to test for encryption: The official/real releases are always CSS encrypted for DVDs and ACSS for Blu Rays. Pop the disk in a computer DVD (or Blu Ray) drive and open it with MakeMKV. If the line Protection is empty, there is no encryption and it is invariably a bootleg...
  14. Brent Reid
    February 22, 03:28 Reply
    A fair point, though there are also other, newer DRM schemes for DVD, such as CPRM and AES. Not quite "invariably" either: for a variety of reasons, a minority of legit discs don't employ any DRM. Regardless, none of this tech stuff is much use to the average consumer who just wants to avoid buying knock-offs in the first place!

Leave a Reply

You might also like