By Keeran Sewsunker

Far Eastern piracy cartels are flooding South Africa with pirated videos, music CDs, DVDs and even Sony Playstation games, within days of their official release.

Experts believe at least 70 percent of Sony Playstation games in circulation are pirate copies.

While the pirating of Indian movies and music has been widespread for years, Hollywood is not safe either. Hong Kong, Chinese and other Far East syndicates are involved in the production and distribution of Hollywood creations.

Pirated videos and DVDs of Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham, the latest Indian movie to woo crowds at local cinemas, were already being sold on Durban's streets days after the movie was released.

Despite the movie not being released on video, several video outlets around Durban are hiring out the movie. During the past weeks, copies of the movie were being sold at Blue Lagoon as well as several suburbs around Durban for between R20 and R40. Last month there were reports that the Harry Potter film was available on video before the movie opened on the cinema circuit internationally.

The managine director of South African Federation Against Copyright, Fred Potgieter, said the pirating of DVD films was growing at a rapid rate internationally. Most were entering the country from Malaysia.

"Three days after Harry Potter was released in South Africa and the United States, pirated copies were available, six months before the film was officially expected to be released on video and DVD. The same is true for Lord of the Rings," he said.

His organisation confiscated 62 000 pirated Playstation games last year, a sharp increase from 38 000 in 2000.

He said 70 percent of the games available in the country were pirates and the situation was getting worse.

Vishal Roopanand, director of Roopanands, South Africa's biggest distributor of Indian movies and music, said Pakistani syndicates were involved in Indian movie and music piracy.

It was easy for Pakistanis to produce pirated movies and music as there were no trade links between India and Pakistan because of the ongoing conflict between the two nations.

"We distributors have to pay huge fees and royalties to distribute the movies. The pirates are drastically affecting our business as, by the time we get the movie, there are already thousands of pirated copies available," he said. He said new digital technology had made it very easy to produce reasonably good quality videos and DVDs.

There were at least two methods of pirating movies. Because movies were released in cinemas on different days in different countries, a person with a digital camera could record the film at an Indian cinema and then produce copies and distribute it across the world.

Local cinema Berea Cinecentre this week confirmed the Harry Potter producers had issued a directive that a sign banning the filming of the movie while it was shown there be displayed.

However, Ster Kinekor said no such directive had been issued to it.

Another method of pirating was to obtain a "cut" of the film and then make copies from it.

Roopanand said the Pakistani cartels broke up into cells when they entered South Africa. These cells concentrated on different cities and towns.

Roopanand said Hollywood movies were being pirated in China, Singapore, Hong Kong and other Far East countries. Here the industry was largely controlled by Hong Kong's notorious Triad gangs.

Nilesh Singh, of Videovision Entertainment, the producers of local comedy Mr Bones, said it was difficult to pirate the movie at this stage because the company had control of all the material.

"But Bollywood pirating has always been a problem. This is the reason dealing in Bollywood products is no longer lucrative," he said.

However, Ster Kinekor regional manager Shaffi Mohamed Ali said while the company did not support piracy in principle, it did not really affect their business because the difference between pirated videos and the cinema was "like chalk and cheese".

Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham was the group's most popular movie in the province during the festive season. He said most pirated videos were of bad quality and people would then want to see them at the cinema.

Police spokesperson Captain Vish Naidoo said they could only investigate piracy when they received a specific complaint.

Meanwhile, the United States has threatened the Ukraine with sanctions if it did not implement measures to curb large-scale piracy of US music CDs in that country. The sanctions are to take effect on January 23.

This week the Ukraine parliament failed to approve a draft bill on CD production that could have prevented US sanctions.

Illegal production of CDs costs up to $300-million (about R3,5-billion) a year in damages to the global record industry, according to experts.