Russia mulls legalizing pirated movie screenings

A bill proposing "compulsory licensing" of foreign films would allow cinemas in Russia to legally screen pirated Hollywood movies.

Russian lawmakers are drafting a bill to ensure compulsory licensing of films for distribution in Russia, according to Anton Gorelkin, a senior deputy at the country's rubber-stamp lower house of parliament, the State Duma.

"To my knowledge, a bill is being discussed to enable movie theaters to legally screen new foreign films instead of engaging in the semi-legal practice of 'pre-show service,'" Gorelkin said on Telegram.

A "pre-show service" is essentially a cinema screening of a pirated movie downloaded from torrents but marketed as a free preview shown ahead of a domestic film to bypass copyright laws that, technically, still exist in Russia.

Movie theaters across Russia have adopted the practice as major Hollywood studios cut official distribution channels and pulled out of the country due to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Films like The Batman, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and, most recently, Avatar: The Way of Water have been released in Russia without the consent of their rights holders.

Russia's Association of Cinema Owners, representing some 700 movie theaters, has led the lobbying efforts for compulsory licensing of foreign films. It previously said Russia's film industry was risking collapse without Hollywood movies.

Pirated away

Critics of the bill say that it will legalize state-sponsored piracy. Russia’s ally Belarus has recently passed a similar law that legalized pirated movies, TV shows, music, and software with copyright owners from "unfriendly" countries.

Russian cinemas have resorted to torrents to satisfy their audiences' appetite for Hollywood flicks and keep the lights on, as domestic production cannot ensure the industry's survival.

“Unfortunately, the quantity and quality of Russian films released to the public does not meet the full demand of cinemas for content,” the Association of Cinema Owners said in May, as reported by TorrentFreak.

The so-called previews allowed moviegoers in cities across Russia to enjoy big-screen releases from Hollywood studios like Disney, Netflix, Sony, and Warner Bros. even after they left the market last year.

Initially, "private" screenings proliferated, while a new scheme marketing pirated foreign movies as free previews ahead of domestic production screenings emerged last summer.

In late December, Avatar: The Way of Water was released by some cinemas as a preview to a 17-minute-long Russian short film.

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