TAIPEI, Taiwan — In the pastel-colored lounge of Taipei's biggest video entertainment center, Shinn Jwu-chern made no bones about why he trafficked in the pirated videocassettes that have cost American filmmakers millions of dollars in lost royalties.
"The consumer demand was so high," Shinn said. He sipped his coffee and shrugged. "They wanted to see them. We had to have them for business."
One year ago, if Shinn didn't have them, 1,200 competing outlets would. That's how fast and furious the competition became in a distinctly Taiwanese business phenomenon called MTV.
That's not Music Television, as in America. It's Movie TV, Taiwan-style. Marked by flashy neon signs and U.S. pop music, MTV centers provide private rooms where small groups of friends can rent and watch videos--usually American, often thrillers like "Lethal Weapon." For Taiwanese teens, the centers offer an oasis of privacy away from cramped homes and nosy parents, filling the role that drive-in theaters played for American adolescents in the 1950s.
And, until recently, MTV had been one of the hottest businesses in Taiwan. Two years ago, when MTV hit like a hurricane, lines for MTV rooms snaked out to the street and entrepreneurs could recoup their investment in just four months, said Paul Huang, formerly a government regulator who now represents U.S. film interests through the Foundation for the Protection of Film & Video Works in Taipei.
"It grew haphazardly, like wildfire, without any regulation at all," said William Nix, senior vice president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, who directs the industry's worldwide anti-piracy efforts. "It was very harmful to the image of the film industry, the royalties and the distribution strategies."
But that was then. This is now. MTV is fading fast.
The U.S. movie industry vociferously complained, led by MPAA members Columbia Pictures Entertainment, MGM/UA Communications, Orion Pictures, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox Film, Universal City Studios, Walt Disney (Buena Vista Pictures Distribution) and Warner Bros. Their films made up at least 60% of MTV inventories, Huang said.
At the fad's peak, the industry figured it was losing as much as $50 million in royalties a year. And MTV was cutting into the industry's movie-theater business, because pirated videotapes sometimes would surface in the MTV centers before the film was even released in Taiwan.
"Some people would go abroad and (videotape the film) in the theaters and movie houses, and bring it back," Shinn confessed. His Solarsystem Audio & Video Library Co. projects a distinctly American ambience with posters of Kevin Costner, American rock videos playing on a big screen and even Marlboro cigarette butts crushed out in Marlboro ashtrays. Shinn said the center stocks 13,000 videotapes and 10,000 laser discs for 1,500 customers cramming 70 rooms a day.
Pushed by Hollywood, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative grabbed the issue and hammered Taiwan with it. As part of broader negotiations over Taiwan's problems in protecting U.S. intellectual property rights, trade officials singled out MTV as "one of the most glaring aspects," said Raymond Sander, director of trade and commercial negotiations for the American Institute in Taiwan in Arlington, Va.
(The institute, with offices in Arlington and Taipei, serves as the unofficial diplomatic link with Taiwan in the absence of formal relations.)
And Taiwan's Government Information Office took the problem to heart. Officials had little choice: The Americans were threatening to press unfair trade charges, which would clear the way for retaliation. Nervous officials thus began swooping down on MTV operators with a vengeance.
Last year, officials raided MTV centers 13,800 times and confiscated 290,300 illegal videotapes. They had so much illegal booty in the early days of the crackdown that they had to haul it out in trucks, said Liao Cheng-hao, deputy director-general of the Government Information Office.
Officials busted two underground factories that made pirated videotapes and shut them down. They also drove many operators out of business by enforcing local laws on zoning, health and safety, which many centers routinely violate. The safety hazards were pummeled home when fires broke out in a few centers last year, killing several people.
As a result of the actions, the number of MTV centers has tumbled to about 270, Huang said. In addition, the percentage of MTV operators using pirated videotapes is now less than 10%, according to the government, compared to 95% in 1982, when the business first surfaced.
Government officials have also pushed forward a revised copyright law that should give bulletproof legal protections to U.S. filmmakers. A new law is critical, because many of the remaining MTV operators have switched from outright pirated copies to videotapes licensed only for home use. In their minds, they are now using legal tapes.