SCMP Saturday, August 5, 2000

Piracy trade 'all but wiped out'

JO BOWMAN and MIKE CARLSON


A crackdown on the trade in pirated film and music CDs has wiped out 98 per cent of the illicit market, the Commissioner of Customs and Excise says.

Speaking yesterday in response to an Australian film boss' statement that "growing and rampant" piracy made it impossible to do business in the SAR, John Tsang Chun-wah said the number of pirated discs in circulation was just two per cent of what it was a year ago.

Mr Tsang said a $150 million campaign to eliminate piracy over the past year had all but wiped out the trade in fakes. He said there were now fewer than 100,000 pirated discs in circulation, down from an estimated five million 12 months ago.

His comments followed the sale by Australian-based Village Roadshow of its 50 per cent stake in local cinema operator Golden Village - which has six complexes and 26 screens in the SAR - for about $59 million on Thursday. Village Roadshow managing director Graham Burke said the company was pulling out of Hong Kong because the copyright piracy problem here was enormous.

"Mr Burke's stated reason for his sale by attributing commercial decisions to ancient history is both irresponsible and disingenuous," Mr Tsang said yesterday. "Painting a fictitious picture to justify commercial decisions damages the credibility of both the company concerned as well as the industry. We must look at the facts."

Mr Tsang said box-office takings for most cinema operators had risen since June last year, when the Customs Special Task Force was set up to battle copyright piracy.

He said some cinemas had seen a 20 per cent jump in takings in the first half of this year, adding that the heads of the Motion Picture Association and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry had thanked Customs for their efforts. The United States removed Hong Kong from its piracy "watch list" in February last year in recognition of growing efforts to stamp out the trade.

Two agents from the National Intellectual Property Rights Co-ordination Centre in Washington this week spent three days touring the Customs Department's anti-piracy operation at the former Kai Tak airport. "We've been very impressed. We've appreciated that Hong Kong Customs has allowed us to observe their expert enforcement efforts in property rights," US Customs Service special agent Delbert Richburg said.

The crackdown followed angry scenes in March last year, when film trade workers closed cinemas and surrounded the Legislative Council building to demand tough action against piracy they said was threatening their industry. Customs' head of intellectual property investigations unit Ben Leung Lun-cheung said that year 2,701 people were arrested for piracy offences and officials seized 16.5 million pirated discs worth more than $297 million. By June this year, more than 1,500 arrests had been made and 4.8 million discs, worth about $88 million, had been seized.