It’s that time of year when the Academy Award-winning films start to (finally) hit the big screen in Costa Rica. Cinephiles might be willing to wait and see “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or “The Theory of Everything” in theaters, but impatient fans can easily skip the theater, pop their own popcorn and watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters at home, thanks to enterprising bootleggers across San José.
Would-be moviegoers making an impulse buy on the street or in a soda might not understand that their purchase is illegal and could even be supporting organized crime. According to San José Municipal Police Chief Marcelo Solano, the estimated economic losses related to pirated DVDs and other content could be as high as $37 million. However, the small-time nature of the crime, court fees and limited enforcement options often deter artists and entertainment businesses from pressing charges.
Strolling down Avenida Central, San José’s main walking boulevard, in the early evening is prime time to buy a pirated movie. Twitchy peddlers keep an eye out for police as they stand in front of tarps lined with cellophane-wrapped DVDs alongside others selling everything from socks to umbrellas. The movies vary in quality, but the higher-end pirated movies come complete with cover art, start menus with stills from the film, and language options. Some hawkers are bold enough to call out their wares before lookouts whistle down the block to warn about a police patrol.
But bootleggers have also taken root in more established locales. A short drive around the affluent canton of Escazú, southwest of San José, revealed a handful of brick-and-mortar video rental shops (remember those?) offering DVDs of movies that are sometimes not even in theaters in the United States.
In one shop, the Oscar-nominated films were prominently displayed next to the counter, despite the fact that many have no announced DVD release date or are only available through video streaming services. Of the Oscar-nominated films on display —“Birdman,” “Foxcatcher,” “The Imitation Game,” “American Sniper,” “Boyhood,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Whiplash,” “Selma” and “Still Alice”— only “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” and “The Theory of Everything” had been released on Blu-Ray and DVD when The Tico Times visited on Feb. 18.
The DVDs went for ₡1,500 each, or roughly $3. There was a buy-four-get-one-free special.
“We only sell [DVDs],” the attendant said. “We don’t rent anymore.”
Solano, the San José police chief who told The Tico Times that the economic losses associated with pirated DVDs and music ranged between ₡15-20 billion ($27-37 million) also said that street vendors, known as ambulantes, are a major concern for San José’s municipal police. According to the chief, the sale of pirated DVDs in the capital has exploded during the last five years in scale and sophistication. In 2014, San José police — the only municipal police department in Costa Rica — seized 82,300 pirated DVDs, including 2,000 pornographic discs. Solano said this year they would likely seize their one millionth bootleg movie. Seized DVDs are collected and eventually sent to a cement factory for incineration, the same practice used to destroy cocaine.
Chief Solano said the scope and sophistication of pirated DVDs sales points to organized crime. He drew a distinction between DVD sales and vegetables or clothes that are sold on the street by ambulantes. Many ambulantes are humble people, but Solano said they are often paid by bootleg rings that produce huge amounts of pirated content to sell the items and protect territory.
Solano said that ever-cheaper DVD-burning equipment and access to online sources for digital content has made controlling the nuisance industry a challenge. In one case the chief remembered, police discovered $20,000 in cash, cocaine and equipment to produce large amounts of ripped DVDs in a San José hotel room.
There is no jail time associated with illegal street sales, so police are limited to seizing the goods and fining the culprits. This leaves police with few tools to deter a booming trade. Solano said that the perceived futility of prosecuting individual street vendors and the court costs associated with so many individual street vendors deters many victims of piracy from pursuing criminal cases.
Costa Rica was listed as one of 27 countries on a watch list for intellectual property rights infractions, according to the Special 301 Report from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The 2014 report noted that despite some improvements in enforcement, there have been few IRP prosecutions that would deter copyright infringement. The report also cited growing evidence of links to organized crime when it comes to pirated content, software and pharmaceuticals. Solano said there have been no cases of drug cartels using digital piracy to launder money, but he did not rule it out.
“These groups rarely limit their criminal enterprises to one area,” Solano observed.
In its filing for the 2015 Special 301 report, Trade Vice Minister Jhon Fonseca argued that Costa Rica should be removed from the watch list, citing improved IPR enforcement at its borders and in the court system. The report noted that 58 cases of IP violations, like trademark violations and copyright infringement, have been filed with the Economic Crimes Prosecution Office and local prosecutors during 2014. So far, one has been submitted to the criminal court.
“The U.S. encourages the Government of Costa Rica to strengthen intellectual property rights protection, and our Embassy continues to work closely with the Costa Rican officials on capacity-building for intellectual property rights protection,” the U.S. Embassy in San José told The Tico Times in an email. USTR will publish its 2015 report sometime in early April.
Marinela Cortés, director of ProInnova, a unit of the University of Costa Rica that advocates for intellectual property rights, told The Tico Times in a telephone interview that Costa Rica has made improvements to its legal framework to address IPR concerns, but that the issue remains poorly understood by the public. Many people buy burned music, movies and other contraband without a second thought, she observed.
Buyers of the bootlegs might brush off the purchase as a victimless crime, especially when the films were produced by a big Hollywood studio, but pirated content hurts local artists and producers in Costa Rica, too. Cortés noted that pirated copies of the “Maikol Yordan” movie — the most attended movie in Costa Rican history made by Tico filmmakers — are also for sale on the street.
“Think about the film industry that is trying to establish itself here. If [bootleggers] don’t respect the rights of the artists, it’s difficult. It’s how people make money to keeping making movies, art,” Cortés said.