A Thriving but Shady Business

By Medecci Lineil

Selling pirated DVDs is a criminal act. But despite all attempts to shut down the business, the trade is thriving. What brings poor entrepreneurs into this shady commerce, and what does it mean to their customers?

Over the years, governments have tried to crack down on the lucrative DVD piracy business. They have framed rules and regulations, hoping to put the sellers out of business. However, this doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.

Despite all countermeasures, the trade has persisted, largely as an underground activity.

In many countries, the DVD piracy business is so prevalent that it has become an easy-to-do business, especially for the youth and low-income families. It helps them make ends meet.

Ah Tew, a shabby looking pirated DVD seller, Chinese male in his mid 40s, has been in the business at the Kota Sentosa 7thMile Wet Market in Kuching, Malaysia, for five years. According to him, he is totally unaware any of wrongdoing on his part.

Ah Tew has all the latest movie titles neatly arranged on the table. Suffering from a permanent spinal injury from a motorcycle accident last year, he cannot afford to switch jobs or trade. He sells pirated DVDs merely to survive.

“This is the only job I can do without putting my back at pain. I sit and wait for customers. What else can I do, if not this?”

Meanwhile his supervisor, Ah Boy, says, “This is practically the only means I know to earn money. I am married and have a family to feed at home. This is my fulltime job.”

When asked whether he is aware of the illegality of the trade, he immediately switch to argument mode:

“Look around you, everything is pirated nowadays. Where is the original? Look at her (selling flowers), she is selling artificial flowers.”

These tradesmen operate out of sidewalks with nothing but their stock of contraband merchandise, one or two tables and a plastic chair. Ah Boy could not afford to rent a commercial outlet and hence chose to operate from the sidewalks of Kota Sentosa 7th Mile Wet Market.

“No need to pay tax and rent. You see them there, selling jewelry, traditional medicine, artificial flowers or sunglasses. They are like me. We don’t disturb people”, Ah Boy says.

Many a passerby pause to take a look at Ah Tew’s collection. Customers are attracted by the cheap prices of pirated DVDs. His target customers are mainly low-income families.

At 10 Malaysian ringgit ($3) for 4 DVDs, they are very cheap. As Ah Boy explains, “The price is cheap as there is no tax or government regulation; plus there is an extensive chain of distributors and contractors like my Ah Tew.”

It’s their customers who gain from the low prices, he says. There is not much of an advantage for sellers like Ah Tew, it seems. Ah Tew was arrested by the police several times while selling pirated DVDs last year, but somehow his bosses managed to get him out.

“I don’t disturb people. Why arrest me? Whether you want to buy or not is up to you?” he laments.

Ah Tew is just the lowest and the final link in the extensive business chain. It would do little good to stop the DVD piracy by closing out operators like him.

Ah Tew himself has no idea about the origin of his pirated DVDs. He is just the frontline of selling. Meanwhile, it is a known fact that the quality of pirated DVDs has reached an all-time high with improved technology, clear picture, clear sound and good subtitles. Consequently, sales volumes have grown multifold.

Generally, their customers are happy with this business.

“My children love UpinIpin [a Malaysian TV.series] cartoons so much. 3 DVDs for 10 ringgit is something I can afford to make sure they learn and are happy,” says a smiling, modest young mother as she buys the DVDs.

“I can return the DVD if something is wrong,” she says.

It is clear that this business cannot be eradicated as there are many like this young mother who depend mostly upon sellers like Ah Tew for their entertainment needs. However, from a government perspective, selling pirated DVDs is wrong and an illegal business.

But again, the business model is attractive and cheap, and it has an efficient distribution network. What can the government do about it?

No amount of law and regulations can stop the business. Technology is constantly evolving. People like Ah Boy and Ah Tew are determined as ever. And there will always be people like them. Ah Tew admits that, nowadays, more and more competitors are flooding the Kota Sentosa market. And many people download all their favorite music and movies overnight to their thumb drives free of cost and even pass it around amongst their friends, instead of spending money on pirated DVDs. The business is not as profitable as it used be.

In the eyes of the public, sellers like Ah Boy and Ah Tew may be nothing more than poor and desperate street hawkers. But bear in mind, these people are entrepreneurs of a kind, struggling to make money but placing their own freedoms at risk. The pirated DVD business is alive and kicking, and is here to stay for as long as the DVD technology is in use.

First appeared in The Global Entrepreneur on the 23 September 2014.

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