Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbia: Harry Potter and the Pirates of Belgrade

The authorities in Belgrade, which long colluded with the country's notorious counterfeiters, are now under pressure to crack down on the trade.
By Bojan Toncic

Tuck Vision, distributors in Serbia of hit movie "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", have posted a reward of 1,000 German marks - a small fortune in the impoverished country - for anyone reporting on video rental outlets pedalling pirate copies of the film, which premieres in Belgrade on December 22.


The substantial reward is a striking novelty in a country where the counterfeit business has thrived, with the collusion of government, for the past ten years. It's not known if anyone has claimed the Tuck Vision prize, but the move points to a significant shift in attitudes here.


It became clear last summer, during meetings between the Serbian government and the Council of Europe, that if the country is to move closer to Europe the issue of intellectual property theft will have to be dealt with.


In August, after a meeting with Microsoft boss Bill Gates, aimed at attracting the company to Serbia, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic announced a tougher line on copyright. But since then little has been done. The counterfeit business employs thousands of people, who would otherwise struggle to earn a living in Serbia's wrecked economy.


Were the government to ban illegal computer software it would bring the whole society to a standstill. Newspapers, electronic media, universities, airport terminals, even governmental departments rely on it. The finance minister Bozidar Djelic recently confessed that government departments have only two original software programmes.


Jovan, a stall-holder outside the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade, does not think the government is sincere in its anti-piracy policy. "I've no idea what Djindjic wants now," he said. "The state registered the companies that deal with production of counterfeit cassettes, CDs, computer games and software".


Jovan earns around 300 marks a month from his trade. He makes forty pfennings on each four mark counterfeit CD sale, but he claims it is the manufacturers of illegal copies who make the real money.


Ten years of international sanctions have helped to turn Belgrade into a counterfeit haven. Black market versions of films, computer software, games and audio recordings proliferate and are distributed throughout the region.


When Serbian society found itself isolated by sanctions, there were panicky attempts to keep pace with the world. The only way a university professor could communicate with the outside world was via a counterfeit version of Internet Explorer. Buying original software became impossible - imports and money transfers were blocked, foreign travel almost impossible and the costs of legal software became prohibitive.


The Milosevic government, meanwhile, peddled the line that sanctions were "unjustified and unprovoked". Sanction-busting was seen as a legitimate response.


In 1995, for example, TV Politika aired the Oscar winning Forest Gump before its world premiere. The station's then director, Aleksandar Tijanic, said, "I'm not a pirate, I am the Serbian Robin Hood - I take from the rich and give to the poor."


Tijanic has never been held accountable for this flagrant breach of copyright. Indeed, he went on to be Serbia's information minister. And now he is an advisor on media matters in Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica's cabinet.


Piracy became a quasi-state business in 1995 when the government stepped in to regulate the running of video clubs, which henceforth had to purchase a stamp from the culture ministry for every video cassette rented out. The rental shops were still not required to pay copyright, only the new tax.


Slavenko Bojovic, in charge of TV Politika's film schedules, regularly aired foreign movies without heed of copyright restrictions. "I warned that airing these films was a felony, but I dared not refuse to do so," he said. "Everyone understood that it was a state job ordered from the top."


Indeed, Hollywood blockbusters would often be scheduled to coincide with opposition demonstrations against the Milosevic government.


Even if the government does begin a serious clampdown, the main manufacturers will probably escape the net by switching to legal trade. With the profits from years of illicit business, they can afford to buy licenses.


In fact, the owners of major video clubs are already cooperating with film companies and have now moved into the legal distribution of foreign movies in Serbia. These former pirates are among the strongest critics of the on-going piracy business.


At least the necessary legislation to combat counterfeiting is already in place. The government has no need to go through lengthy parliamentary procedures to set in train reform in this area.


Professor of copyright law at Belgrade University, Slobodan Markovic, believes legislation protecting intellectual property in Serbia is "very good". It only needs to be implemented, he said.


Markovic thinks the government has only to make an example of some leading pirate traders for the situation to change. "One dramatic trial and an offender in jail will be enough," Markovic said. "People involved in the counterfeit business are rational."


The professor may well be right. Jovan the street vendor wants a proper job. "I'll continue to do this until it becomes really risky and brings me into conflict with the police," he said.


Bojan Toncic is a journalist with the Belgrade daily Danas.