AMMAN — Mamoun Talhouni may have the hardest job in Jordan. In a place where major stores sell almost exclusively pirated DVDs, CDs, and software in full view of the police, as director general of the National Library he has been tasked with stopping copyright infringement.
Unlike the U.S. where most pirated material is downloaded in private, or even in other developing countries where DVD bootleggers live in fear of the police, in Jordan it’s difficult to tell that anyone has a problem with it. Pirate DVD shops are mixed in among other storefronts along major roadways and everyone from locals to embassy workers can be seen buying movies for 1 Jordanian Dinar ($1.41) a piece.
Although Jordan has been working to combat piracy for nearly a decade, Talhouni is up against bootleggers seemingly immune to fines and other penalties, lenient government agencies, and legions of consumers who feel entitled to cheap pirated goods.
“It’s a nightmare for me,” Talhouni said. But the challenge has yet to test his resolve. “The weak get frustrated and I’m not a weak person ... As long as you are in this post, then you should do your job and your job is enforcing the copyright law regardless of the results.”
Jordan began cracking down on pirated goods shortly before joining the World Trade Organization in 2000. In that year, only six copyright cases were referred to the courts. Now, an average of 50 cases make it to the courts each month. Those found guilty can face up to 3 years in prison, fines between 1,000 dinar (about $1,400) to 6,000 dinar, and potentially the closure of their shop.
While that might seem enough to deter copyright pirates, in Jordan they behave not unlike Chicago gangsters in the thick of prohibition who were virtually immune to enforcement. To date, though some bootleggers have gone to jail, the court has not ordered a single shop to close. Many pay a fine and are back in business within a few days or sometimes a few weeks. In at least one instance, Talhouni has seen a shop owner completely restock within two hours of authorities confiscating all his bootlegged merchandise.
For Talhouni, it’s a classic case of a bureaucrat stymied in the system. Members of his eight-man team can send bootleggers to court, but after that they can only act as witnesses. Although he’s requested that at least 20 stores shut their doors for good, no one has agreed to implement his request.
“Sometimes it’s an endless effort, but I hope that there will be an end for it with the help of the other governmental agencies. This problem will not be solved by only one department,” says Talhouni, who hopes for greater cooperation from his counterparts throughout the government, but generally commends its efforts.
He also acknowledges that getting other agencies more involved would require serious time and resources. For example, before police could bust bootleggers they would need specialized training, which would require creating a curriculum and officers.
When Talhouni talks about copyright law, he’s the kind of person that can’t help but cite specific legal articles by number. He ignores criticism from friends who think his job makes a mountain out of a molehill and says he has converted both his wife and his 13-year-old daughter into copyright zealots.
In other words, he’s the kind of guy who can’t get his head around why anyone would want to break copyright law and buy pirated goods.
“You can see movies on the TV, you can rent a movie for 2JD, you are not obliged to buy, and if you have enough money you can buy. But people say, ‘Why should I buy a movie at the expense of 15JD when I can buy it for 1JD?’” he says. “This man [selling bootleg movies] is stealing the rights from others. Why are you encouraging these people to commit this crime?”
As long as there remains a major disparity between the price of legitimate and pirated goods, Rawand al-Zoubi, a legal advisor at the Audio Visual Commission who also works with copyright law, says that there is only so much countries like Jordan can do without action from the media producers themselves.
“In my opinion, the reforming of regulations and laws that govern this sector should start from the U.S., Europe, and the U.K. because they are the source,” Zoubi said. “We are the market and we receive the product from outside … so we have to control the source first.”
Talhouni places much of his hope in educating the next generation about the merits of abiding by copyright law and has requested that the Ministry of Education make it part of the curriculum. So far, no one has.
However, he says the stakes are high for enforcement. Jordan, could for example, become a software manufacturer if developers didn’t feel threatened by bootlegging. Additionally, the country loses millions of dollars in tax revenue it could collect from legitimate goods entering the country. More than anything, Talhouni says his nation’s cultural heritage is on the line.
“You might have more singers if they find out that singing is profitable work. Writers will be encouraged to write, more actors will act more, etc., etc.,” he says. “By not abiding by the copyright law and respecting these people there will be very negative affects on the culture.”