Illegal DVD copying rampant in Jordan, without much hope for officials to curb it

Story by Amanda Ostuni // Photos by Amanda Ostuni and Anthony Savvides

AMMAN, Jordan – There might not be Megaplexes on every corner, but movie fans in Jordan still have a direct – and cheap – line to Hollywood. That’s the thriving market of pirated DVD stores, a network of shops selling the latest blockbusters for as little as 1 Jordanian dinar, or $1.40 in US dollars.

A DVD shop in downtown Amman. The name of the store is not shown here to protect the owner from being raided.

Thanks to the extensive presence of stores in areas of Jordan such as downtown Amman, locals can get almost any available American and Arabic movie. However, the DVDs on sale are all unauthorized and they cost shop owners almost nothing to obtain and reproduce.

“Most pirated materials are downloaded from the Internet or done in other countries (such as Syria),” said Hala Manhal Haddadin, legal advisor for the National Library Department, the government agency designated to enforce copyright law in Jordan. “If you smuggle one CD into Jordan, you can produce thousands.”

And that’s exactly what distributors do. Ameen, a 29-year-old employee of a DVD shop downtown, explained that the store where he works pays a dealer about 60 piastres (the Jordan equivalent of cents) per DVD and sells it for 1 dinar. For example, on a recent afternoon, a copy of “Friends with Benefits” was available for 1 dinar on the shelves of Ameen’s store. At the Virgin Megastore in Amman’s City Mall, an original, non-pirated copy of the movie is currently priced at 17 dinar, which is about $24. Ameen, like other shop owners, asked to remain anonymous for fear of being arrested.

Jordan’s copyright law, established in 1992, states that the punishment for selling counterfeited work or reproductions is a jail sentence of three months to three years and/or a fine of 1,000 to 6,000 dinar  – about $1,400 to $8,450. But even with that protection on the books, there is not much chance that offenders will be held responsible for their crime.

“The problem is not that we don’t have a law, it’s in the enforcement of the law,” said Basem M. Melhem, a law professor at the University of Jordan.

Movie piracy remains a hot topic in the United States, where the Motion Picture Association of America rails against the bootleg film industry. But in studies, the MPAA has cited Russia and China as prime territories for movie pirates. The organization has offices in those and in more than a dozen other countries – but not Jordan.

An MPAA spokesman, responding to a request, said the organization had no data available on Jordan or a statement on the issue in the region.

Entertainment companies view the country as too small to deal with, according to Talik Arida, a Jordanian lawyer who has written to Universal and Disney with offers of taking up cases.

“Everyone is happy so there’s no need for government to step in unless someone complains,” said Arida.

On a Friday afternoon in downtown Amman, a vendor set up a booth down the street from the Al Hussein Mosque. He sold pirated DVDs and CDs, including new releases, for prices ranging from 1 to 4 dinar (up to $7).

Right now in Jordan, the National Library Department has just nine people focused on protecting copyright law. They send officers out every day to seize any existing pirated materials, but the shop owners and employees have become savvy, said Haddadin, the NLD legal advisor.

“When one seller sees an official’s car coming, they call all the others and everyone closes their stores,” she said.

That’s led some officers to use unmarked cars on their rounds. Still, their authority is limited: They can inspect and seize materials without a warrant, but they cannot force shopkeepers to open their doors.

Haddadin believes the NLD is doing a good job enforcing the copyright law, despite what others may think. The department was established in 2000 to comply with the international Berne Convention, which states that materials from each country involved would have that country’s copyright laws applied wherever materials are sold. Since its inception, the NLD has referred 4,000 cases to the courts and conducted 30 to 40 raids a month against both big and small DVD stores.

So dire has the problem been that this year, NLD officials, commenting on a recent report in the Jordan Times, expressed relief in learning that just 40 percent of Jordanians said they had rented or bought pirated DVDs in 2012. That’s down from 94 percent in 2011, these officials said.

The NLD’s small staff is not the only challenge to law enforcement.

“The mentality of people here [is] if there’s no way to force them not to, they will do their best to act against the law,” said Kameel Saba, a lawyer who has dealt in copyright infringement cases.

“If the government had 100 employees on task to fight these stores and copyright infringement, they couldn’t stop people from doing it.”

Melhem, the law professor, agrees. “It’s easy to confiscate all the materials, but the next day [the sellers] will have all the same materials there again.”

And there are successes, now and again, for the piracy police. Just last month, as the Jordan Times reported, a distributor’s warehouse was raided in Shafa Badran and more than 100,000 DVDs were impounded. But – the distributor is already working again, according to Hasan, an employee at another downtown shop that sells pirated DVDs.

The DVD bootleggers will remain as long as the consumer base is strong, largely because there aren’t many places to get original DVDs except for such stores as Virgin Megastore and Prime Megastore in the malls. And for Jordanians, the cost of authorized DVDs is unaffordable.

“Most Jordanians make $400…so for that salary, how could you buy original movies?” said shop employee Ameen.

Darren M., a 24-year-old from Missouri who lives in Amman, said he buys pirated DVDs because he likes being able to get a movie before its official home release date. “It’s nice to get it that fast,” said Darren, who declined to give his last name for fear of having his movies confiscated.

He believes there is a difference between buying pirated DVDs in the United States, where he said it is not as much a part of the culture, to purchasing pirated DVDs to watch here in Amman. He also draws a distinction to how he buys illegal DVDs.

“I don’t download movies…that feels illegal,” said Darren. “Here, you’re in a different country with different norms… [The pirate industry] is almost institutionalized here.”

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