Crime with a patriotic cause

  • 2002-08-15
  • Viktoria Loginova, AFP MOSCOW
What others may call deception and crime is a point of pride for Andrei, who claims that his five-year career of selling pirated CDs in Russia's capital was all for a noble cause.

"I make it easier for my countrymen to gain access to American intellectual property," the blond 27-year-old affirmed as a sly smile curled his lips.

The market of pirated CD-ROMs first emerged in Moscow in 1995 and flourished quickly under Moscow's corruptible police's care, with several underground factories now churning out illegal CDs for Muscovite use, Andrei admitted.

According to Russia's Chamber of Commerce, up to 87 percent of all CDs and CD-ROMs sold in Russia are counterfeits, prompting fierce protests from the United States.

However, pirates like Andrei, who now sells some 30,000 CDs a month, claims a moral high ground as well as a hefty profit.

"Our cause is generous and patriotic. Thanks to pirated data, thousands of Russian programmers have the chance to learn of the world's latest developments and boost their own professional abilities," Andrei explained.

"And we also cut in the profits of the American economy," he added with some satisfaction.

The cut is significant. For example, a legitimate copy of the picture editor program, Photoshop, distributed by the U.S.-based company Adobe, costs nearly $600, while Russians can buy its pirated copy for only $3.

Last week, Washington again demanded Moscow's "cooperation" in bringing rampant piracy to heel. Russia, along with neighboring Ukraine, remains one of the world's leading exporters of pirated discs.

However, "media reports on Russia's active fight against pirates make us laugh till we drop," said Andrei.

Local policemen know each of his companions by sight and name, yet do nothing but skim criminal profits to boost their meager salaries, he added.

"Moscow's four largest producers of pirated CD-ROMs sell up to a million discs a month, and their profits make up to 150 percent of their expenses."

Law enforcement agencies, including "high-ranking officials," are more than happy to aid and abet, providing a so-called "roof" to protect each installation from interference on the law's part, the pirate added.

Andrei himself said he had been fingered by the police several times, when his rivals set him up, but "a call from my protectors was all that was needed to get me off scot free."

In his last run-in with law and order, the police burst into his apartment and confiscated some 50,000 discs.

"Later they returned most of them, but the best ended up in my rivals' hands," he mourned.

But Andrei said he was not one to be outdone.

"Sometimes we call the police to spill the beans on our competitors.

Policemen are particularly happy with that - they get to do their job and earn a hefty reward from us," Andrei confided.

Police "roofs" have other advantages - for example, "there have been no murders in our business, and nobody has been thrown into jail," Andrei boasted.

The stockpiles of discs are often kept in unexpected places, to ward off prying eyes, and Andrei's storage is "a secret even for those pirates I work with," he said.

Information on the whereabouts of such storage is worth a lot to the competing vendors, who often employ spies to sniff them out.

Andrei confessed to being tired of the endless game of hide-and-seek with his competitors and police accomplices, but admitted he had nowhere else to go.

"Legal commerce brings in little profit because of pirates," he sighed.