Media pirates make a bundle in Bulgaria ahead of EU entry

SOFIA – Vasko Yordanov has an enviable collection of thousands of blockbuster movies and hit songs on his computer. And it was all for free. Welcome to Bulgaria, where low wages, easy Internet access, and lax law enforcement have let illegal CDs and downloads eclipse the legal sale of music and other digital media. With thriving markets for cheaply copied CDs and websites offering millions of pirate links, pop-chart-following youngsters and computer users who are unwilling to pay full price don’t have to look far. «If prices were lower, I would buy legal music. But how can I pay 30 levs (15.50 euros) for a CD? That’s my power bill for two months,» said Vasko, a 27-year-old computer programmer. The European Union, which will judge on September 26 whether Bulgaria and Romania should join the bloc on January 1, 2007, or wait another year to strengthen reforms, has implored the Black Sea duo to crack down on the problem. In Bulgaria, piracy is a microcosm of the wider landscape, where powerful organized crime gangs have taken over major parts of the economy. Sofia has tried to assuage fears among EU members that it could export crime if it joins next year by passing a battery of laws and cracking down on pirate markets. But the results have been patchy. Kiosks selling pirate CDs are far more common than legal music shops and efforts to shut down illegal downloads have gone nowhere. «There is perfect legislation in Bulgaria, but it is not being implemented,» said Philip Gounev, a research fellow at the Sofia-based Center for the Study of Democracy. «When talking about piracy, the broader problem is weak rule of law.» Bootleg market In Sofia’s central Slaveikov Square, merchants are more blatant, offering catalogs of artwork from music CDs, films and software. Point to a picture, pay 5 euros, and in 10 minutes a boy arrives with product in hand, often within full view of police. An even bigger problem is on the Internet, where websites offer links to copyrighted songs and films for free downloading. «On the Internet, 99.9 percent of all music distributed is pirated. Very few people have been convicted,» said Stanislava Armoutlieva, head of Universal Music’s Bulgarian licensing firm. According to a July report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, 65 percent of all music, downloaded or bought on CDs, is from an illegal copy. Another study from the Business Software Alliance showed Bulgaria and Romania had the highest rate of pirated software among any EU candidate or member state, with 71 and 72 percent, respectively – on a level with the Philippines and India – compared with 27 percent for Britain. In May, Bulgarian police arrested two men for posting links to 20 million songs and hundreds of films on a popular site. They were later released on bail, and the accused said their records showed computers at state institutions – including the Finance and Interior ministries – had accounted for at least half of the pirate traffic. Police also conduct regular sweeps at Slaveikov and other sales points and recently seized over 30,000 disks with pirated music, films and software. But the stalls reopen after a few days. «We have already approved most of the EU legislation on piracy… but guilt, especially for Internet piracy, is almost impossible to prove,» said Dimitar Ganchev, chief secretary of the Bulgarian Internet Society. «Nothing will change significantly after we enter the EU.» European pressure A report by the European Commission in May on whether Bulgaria and Romania should join the bloc in 2007 warned the Danube pair it would delay entry by a year unless they cracked down on weak rule of law, rampant graft, and other »red-flag areas.» But as the September 26 report approaches, diplomats in Brussels are signaling that Bulgaria and Romania will join next year. Analysts say Brussels will likely impose so-called »safeguard clauses» on the pair, which can limit their access to EU markets, border regimes and other common EU policies. But they also fear that, once entry is granted, the wealthy bloc will be out of tools to push Sofia and Bucharest toward reform. «It was seen with the 10 new EU members who joined in 2004 that reforms slowed after entry, and that may happen here too,» said a diplomat from an EU state who wished not to be named. «So the EU must push them to do as much as possible before January 1.» Experts also hope an Electronic Trade Law, which enters into force next year, will help prosecutors jail Internet providers who allow illegal links to software on their servers. A law on CD production, under which only licensed firms can produce such products, should also put pressure on pirates. But with average wages here only around 150 euros a month – the lowest rate of any EU candidate or member state except Turkey – many Bulgarians will be loath to give up pirated media, at least until their incomes approach those of the richer West. «We might have enough money to buy a computer, but never for legal software,» Vasko said.