Overview, the Public Domain and Spotting Fakes
- Avast, me hearties! There be pirates and bootleggers on the horizon
- Robbing honest traders for years but it’s time to make them walk the plank
- Here’s how ye can steer clear of 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.
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 as cockroaches, and are just as resilient.
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 takes 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.
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 want (read: a handful of collectors with an overarching sense of entitlement), 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.
But there is no shortage of misguided advocates for outright theft, often using the excuse that without such activities many films would otherwise become permanently lost. In A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies (2016) by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph, there is very little of what the book’s spurious title claims. Instead, it cites numerous examples of greedy narcissists profiting handsomely from buying and selling well known films that are owned, copyrighted and preserved by others, and in no danger whatsoever of disappearing for good. A more apt subtitle would be “…Collectors and Dealers Who Stole the Movies“. Supporters of piracy such as this pair like to paint the offenders as latter-day Robin Hood figures, perpetuating a benign, victimless crime and helping to put obscure works of art back into the hands of a deserving public, where they belong. 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, describes 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.
Tongue-in-cheeks tip: When making a sex tape, play Disney music in the background. Then if it gets leaked online, Disney’s lawyers will have all copies taken down. So they can’t simply mute it, get some Disney imagery in there for good measure – Mickey Mouse bedsheets, perhaps?!
Incidentally, Disney may have their critics but they’re one of the few companies I know of who actually make it easy to report copyright infringement. They provide several ways to contact them and then act quickly. Sadly, most others, even those very badly affected, bother to take the issue seriously. Well-meaning informants are routinely passed from department to department, even by smaller outfits, only to be fobbed off with a vague, noncommittal “Someone will get back to you.” Which, of course, almost never happens. C’mon, copyright holders, sort yourselves out.
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, in the US, all works published prior to January 1, 96 years ago, automatically become PD but there are some exceptions, such as films that have undergone 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 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, 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. But vast numbers of PD films are also available in restored, high quality editions from some of the best labels in the world; they’re the ones you should seek out. But there are countless bottom-feeding labels who specialise in releasing supposedly PD material from any source they can get their hands on. In the US, the biggest include the likes of Synergy Entertainment, 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 an ostensibly PD company without a large proportion of copyrighted titles on its books. Note that Wikipedia, IMDb and the Internet Archive are not reliable resources for definitively ascertaining PD status. 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 copyright-infringing or at the very 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 almost certain to be shorn of any extra features.
Basically, the line between “PD” companies and outright pirates is a very blurry one indeed and in practical terms there is no real distinction. It’s perhaps more accurate to categorise all copyright thieves as one or both of the following:
- Those who claim their material is PD but seemingly don’t bother to check, likely because they suspect otherwise.
- Those who know their material is copyrighted but use it anyway. These are the primary focus of these articles. In extreme cases, some even claim to own the copyright themselves! More on this later.
In the US public domain or copyrighted? Here’s how to tell: Public Domain Sherpa
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.
- Many European pirates have been issued on pressed discs in the past, but latterly appear increasingly often on recordable BD-Rs or DVD-Rs. These are easily identified by their blue-tinted playing sides.
- 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 upscaled from 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.
- Pirates always 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. Where such dubs are present, they will usually be the default soundtrack – that’s if the the original hasn’t been left off altogether. Whatever the soundtrack, it will frequently be badly mastered and annoyingly unsynchronised. When foreign subtitles have been added, they’ll usually be set to turn on by default.
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 boxes full of rare, deleted DVDs, you can bet your life they’re bootleggers.
- Beware of Pirates! How to Avoid Bootleg Blu-rays and DVDs: Overview, the public domain and spotting fakes
- Bootlegs Galore: The Great Alfred Hitchcock Rip-off
- Alfred Hitchcock: Dial © for Copyright: British Law
- Charlie Chaplin Collectors’ Guide, Part 2: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good