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02 October 2023

Pirates sink Beirut cinema

Police seize illegal software, cds and Dvds in Beirut. (AFP)

By Rana Moussaoui

Tarek won't bother going to the local cinema to see Hollywood hits Valkyrie or Revolutionary Road. Like most Lebanese, he can watch them at home for a dollar thanks to a rampaging culture of piracy.

"Why should I pay $30 to buy a film when I can get a copy for $3 or less?" said the 15-year-old, flicking through a stack of copies of the latest Hollywood blockbusters at a Beirut stall.

According to the International Intellectual Property Alliance, a private sector coalition that represents US-based copyright industries, more than half of CDs, DVDs and software sold in Lebanon are copies.

"This situation is one of the main factors preventing Lebanon from joining the World Trade Organisation," said Wissam al Aamil, head of the economy ministry's office for the protection of intellectual copyright.

A few years ago, Microsoft wanted to base its regional centre in Beirut but the piracy problem deterred the software giant, he added.

The counterfeiting has sorely affected the entertainment sector in Lebanon.

"Cinemas have seen their revenues drop by more than 50 per cent in 10 years," said Bassam Eid, production director for Empire Cinemas and agent for Columbia/ Sony and 20th Century Fox.

"They are threatened with extinction, in my view," he said. Under the noses of police, pirated disks are on sale not just from street peddlers but from kiosks with frontages as attractive as any official CD and DVD outlet.

"How do you expect me to make a living if I sell originals of films and CDs," asked Karim, a Beirut hawker who did not want his real name to be used. "Look," he said, pointing to some racks in a corner of his shop. "That lot is worth $5,000 and they have been there for ages."

The pirated copies on sale in Beirut are not just old films but even ones that have yet to be shown in cinemas.

In the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila or in the southern suburbs where the Hezbollah militant group is strong, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, nominated for several Oscars, and Pink Panther 2 are already available.

"It cost a million dollars for cinema distribution rights to Valkyrie and you can find it everywhere. It really is disgusting," said Eid.

Lebanon introduced a law in 1999 to protect intellectual and artistic copyright but the government has shied away from tackling the problem and from taking any decisive action. "From time to time the police destroy seized disks but these represent only one per cent of the ones on the market," Eid said. "The worst thing is that you have operators who pirate foreign television stations and also broadcast pirated movies on other channels," he says.

Around 700 network operators in Lebanon capture and decode hundreds of channels from around the world and distribute them via cable to an estimated 80 per cent of the population for an average $15 a month.

The lack of action by the state stems from an unstable political situation, a lack of resources and a certain indifference to the problem.

"From the consumer's viewpoint, you wouldn't expect him to buy software for $800 when he can get it for $20," customs chief Walid Habr explained, admitting to not being very tough on seizing disks.

"We cannot forbid access to technology to people who cannot afford to buy the original programme," Aamil said. "Nevertheless, it costs the state millions of dollars," he said.