Beijing cracks down on bootlegs _ sort of

Aug. 10, 2008, 10:18 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The new movies - or at least those the shopkeeper insists are new - are displayed in the back of the little store on a couple of narrow shelves, across from rows of B-movie slasher fests, kung fu epics and early John Wayne westerns.

Among other titles, there's the third in the "The Godfather" trilogy, 18 years old; "One True Thing," Meryl Streep's weepy family drama from 1998, and "The Departed," Martin Scorsese's mob tale that came out in 2006.

But the visitor wonders: Is there, uh, anything else?

The shopper (that would be me) tries to look conspiratorial, gesturing vaguely toward a door that leads into a back room. This is Beijing after all, an international center of the bootleg trade, a city where DVDs of major movies are often for sale within hours of world premieres in New York and Hollywood. Despite a recent crackdown ahead of the Olympics, rumor has it the pirated movies are still out there. You just need to know where to ask.

The new "X-Files"? "No," the shopkeeper says.

"WALL-E"? No.

"Iron Man"? No. At this point, other customers are watching the exchange intently.

How about the new Batman movie? She doesn't understand immediately, but a customer translates the title into Chinese.

"No, no, no!" she says, waving a hand back and forth and making it clear it was time for this particular visitor to leave her particular shop.

Anxious to clean up its well-earned reputation as a thriving market of stolen intellectual property, and facing criticism from Washington and elsewhere for its failure to shut that market down, China scoured the streets of Beijing ahead of the Olympics, sweeping the multi-billion-dollar trade under the carpet. At least for a while.

As expected, over the past few months authorities have gone on the offensive against the knockoffs that pervade Beijing. They have ordered shopkeepers to stop selling fake Gucci purses; they have shut down pirate DVD stalls and forced other movie shops to get rid of their illegal wares. Since last year, when the U.S. filed a World Trade Organization complaint against Beijing over product piracy, high-profile crackdowns have left Chinese authorities burning, shredding and crushing tens of millions of pirated DVDs, CDs and illegal books.

Every once in awhile, someone even gets arrested.

In April, a Beijing court has handed down the first-ever jail sentence in the Chinese capital for copyright infringement, locking up a 40-year-old man for a year and fining him about $1,400. He had nearly 11,000 pirated DVDs in his store, state media reported at the time.

In June, China's vice premier vowed - again - that Beijing would strengthen the protection of intellectual property. But he urged patience for still-modernizing China, which is set to pass Germany and become the world's third-largest economy after the U.S. and Japan.

"There is still much room for improvement," Wang Qishan acknowledged after talks with U.S. officials.

But in Hollywood, where those millions of bootleg movies are seen a profit-sucking scourge, they say nine out of ten DVDs sold in China are still pirated.

Hollywood's top lobbyist said he expects some improvement during the Olympics.

During the games, "the streets will probably be freer and more clear from pirated material," Motion Picture Association of America head Dan Glickman told reporters in April. "The question is whether it has any sustaining value to it or not."

Certainly the bootleg business isn't as open as it was a few months ago. The restaurant waiters who brought bags of pirated DVDs as a peculiar side dish for their customers have left the bootleg goods at home. The young men who roamed the patios in front of electronics malls - endlessly repeating "DVD-DVD-DVD-DVD" - have disappeared. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Beijing DVD shops have had to clear out their illegally sourced inventory.

But after a couple days hunting for bootleg movies, and visits to more than a dozen DVD stores, it's clear that Hollywood's power elite should be ready for post-Olympic disappointment.

"Wait two weeks, three weeks" for the full range of movies to return to the shelves, said a nervous-looking storekeeper who gave his name simply as Dou. His store was elaborate - air-conditioned, well laid-out and offering up everything from European erotica to still more copies of "One True Thing" to Thai horror movies (the plot of "The Unseeable," as described on the back of the package: "the chan is a young country girl who is pregnant, she arrives at the city Bangkok to look for the husband who she disappear").

Asked to explain the problem, he said simply: "You know, the Olympics."

But the movies are still out there - and available during the Olympics if you ask around a bit.

For one visitor (me again), it took just a phone call to an acquaintance who lives in Beijing, who in turn called a couple friends. Within hours, directions were given to a shop in eastern Beijing.

Inside, past a yellow plastic sign reading "DVD CD SHOP," were half-filled shelves and the usual selection of decades-old films that seem to get top billing these days in most stores: John Wayne, the Marx Brothers and Hitchcock. Ask for new movies, though, and the owner nods toward the back.

There, sitting in the open but ready to be quickly shoved under a counter, was a cardboard box. Inside were "The X-Files: I Want to Believe," ''Sex and the City" and plenty of other new releases.

None costs more than $3.