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Piracy in China is smart, hilarious, critics say

CNET's Michael Kanellos finds that software pirates are getting better at marketing and aiming for a classier clientele.

BEIJING--"We Dine in Hell!"

If that were a real battle cry uttered in the Persian War, just think how much different Western Civilization would be today.

Instead, it's the slogan emblazoned in large letters across a pirated copy of the movie 300 that some guy in downtown Beijing wanted to sell to me. He wanted 20 RMB (China Yuan Renminbi), but the price quickly went down to 10 RMB, or about $1.30. He didn't realize the comic gem he was holding. The four or so other guys who pestered me tried to sell 300, too. Their copies had the same movie poster art on the cover, but with the more appropriate "We Die in Hell."

Although the Chinese government is trying to crack down on piracy, illegal software and movies continue to thrive. An estimated 86 percent of software here is illegal. In fact, in some ways it seems a little worse.

Five years ago when I was last here, you had to go into the store and ask for DVD movies. The clerk would then lazily tilt his thumb toward a cardboard box full of titles.

Now they're offered on the street more than in the past. Plus, the selection of movies is getting closer to the time they are playing in the theaters. It used to be you were mostly offered movies that had just been released on DVD or older films, like The Wild Geese and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Not now. The first guy who ran up when I got out of my cab tried to pawn off Spiderman 3 on me. (In fact, every vendor led with Spiderman 3). Then he whipped out Shrek 3. Both are in theaters and neither is on disc yet. Then he started in with the movies that just came out on DVD: Casino Royale, The Queen, and so on. There was hardly anything more than 11 months old.

"Do you have Harry Potter...the new one?" I asked.

No, but his friend standing next to him did--an unreleased movie and for the same $1.30 price as The Queen and Bernie Mac's The Cleaner.

As an experiment, I bought three: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (not due in theaters for several weeks), Shrek 3 (in theaters) and Children of Men (on DVD).

What were the takeaways from my shopping spree?

The desire to see the real versions doesn't justify piracy, but you can see why this makes it tough to eliminate.

1. Piracy is a not just a bunch of random individuals. In a mile walk (admittedly, in an area known for touts), I got hit up at least five times for DVDs, once when a policeman was passing by. If everyone has the same movies, and in the same general area, there's some organization involved. And the government, while trying to crack down, seems to see this as a nuisance, at least on the street level.

Russia figures in here. Children of Men is in Russian. Shrek 3, meanwhile, is in English, but the credits are in Russian, so the cross-border trade is running smoothly.

2. On the other hand, we may not be dealing with a group of super criminals--or super consumers. If people were hawking copies of the Order of the Phoenix--a movie that's being kept under tight lock in a vault--on the street, the studios would clearly have some serious security issues. But no. It turns out that the disc is for Bibi Blocksberg, a German rip-off of Sweden's Pippi Longstocking dubbed in Mandarin with English subtitles. It's a multicultural fraud!

Shrek 3, the in-theater movie, was filmed by someone sitting in a theater. It's fuzzy and the light goes in and out, judging from the scenes I looked at. Pirated copies of this sort aren't going to put a huge dent in theater revenues, just as Rolex probably doesn't lose that many likely buyers to street vendors in Juarez, Mexico. In a sense, these guys are the best advertisers for the studios.

3. Still, you can see why DRM (digital rights management) is necessary. By contrast, Children of Men was pristine (except, of course, the Russian part). I also visited a "legitimate" DVD and CD store. They were selling Babel, a movie that came out last year, for 20 RMB. At around $2.60, that's nearly $18 off the normal retail price. Casino Royale cost 30 RMB. Both worked fine in a store demo. The store even had the original packaging.

4. There is a sociopolitical angle to this. An expatriate I was speaking to said that many of his Asian colleagues buy legitimate discs most of the time. But if the censors cut out profanity or sex, they will buy a pirated version copied from a U.S. disc. Sex and the City is bought this way. The desire to see the real versions doesn't justify piracy, but you can see why this makes it tough to eliminate.

5. The packaging on these things is a work of art. A few years ago, you'd get a disc in a sleeve--on one side there was the movie art poster. On the other, credits from another movie. In short, they looked somewhat hillbilly.

The pirates have upped their marketing and are aiming for a classier clientele. The Shrek 3 disc comes in a folding envelope that contains art from the same movie on both sides of the envelope. It even contains a blurb from David Ansen at Newsweek. "Smart and Hilarious," he said.

But if you read closely, you'll see that the director is listed as Joe Ptkya and it stars Michael Jordan. The sleeve of Children of Men lists as a bonus feature "all new deleted scenes" and a short on the making of Carlito's Way. Spencer Breslin is listed as the star. The typos alone make the packaging worth more than the sales price.

Anna Silk is the star of Order of the Phoenix. But the "Order" envelope also includes an ad on one of the inside panels for the pirated version of Spiderman 3 that the guy was selling, an interesting twist on cross-promotion. And the envelope may display an accurate version of what the legitimate movie art will look like. There's an ominous shot of Voldemort and his followers marching off somewhere in a scene that I don't recognize from the last movie.

Maybe they are all off to dine with the Spartans.