Land of the Bootleggers

The word bootleg used to have a more direct meaning. It used to refer to 19th-century smugglers who hid illegally acquired liquor in their high boots when they had to pass possible checkpoints.

They also hid knives, pistols and other hell-raising objects. But the world changed, as did what could be bootlegged. Today, everything is a commodity. Everything, more or less, is protected by law. Equally, almost everything is tough to protect too, especially intellectual property. It could be translated into bits of zeros and ones, and copied within minutes, if not within seconds.

Someone’s intellectual property, birthed in the windy isles of the Solomon Islands could find itself dispersed in the scorching deserts of Africa before anyone of us could say bootlegged.

But bootlegs do serve a purpose. They are like mosquitoes – we do not need too much of them, just a controlled amount. The way mosquitoes play a part in aquatic ecology, bootlegs are a tiny, though frowned upon, section of the larger film industry equilibrium.

In Ethiopia, bootlegs are the whole of the film industry, save for some circumstances. When it comes to local movies, there is a certain amount of copyright protection enforcement, as the government has recently come to regard artists as the sole proprietors of their creative properties.

There are fewer and fewer illegal copies of Amharic movies being sold on the streets, and certainly in video stores. The public, on the other hand, continues to circulate among themselves bootlegged local movies like there is no tomorrow.

And if such scruples surprise foreigners, they should take a look at the attitude most have towards foreign movies (by which I mean, almost exclusively, English language movies). I do not have a lot of friends, or relatives, who comprehend that almost every Hollywood movie they have ever seen is bootlegged, and an offence under international copyright laws.

The exceptions are those that make the occasional excursion to the only mall that screens foreign movies, Matti Multiplex. But at 60 to a 100 Br a ticket, in a country where the per capita income is less than 600 dollars, according to a World Bank report, cinema goers are few and far between.

Bootlegging is a symptom, not a disease. People do not bootleg because they are naughty little boys who like to reap benefits without having to pay a penny for them. They just do not have the penny. Ethiopia is still a developing country, where most cannot afford the necessities of life.

And if they cannot afford to eat three meals a day, buy lighter clothes for summer or fix a leaking ceiling, then why do we expect them to purchase ‘La La Land’ at 15 dollars a DVD (plus shipping) on Amazon? Bootlegging is a symptom of the devastating disease we call poverty.

So most bootleg the living daylights out of every movie and TV show they can find. Of course, reports tell us that Internet users in Ethiopia are very few, so not everybody is personally bootlegging movies. Instead, they are buying bootlegged material for a much fairer price than they would find the legal one.

Bootlegged movies can be found in video rental stores, in every town and neighbourhood. They are very easy to spot. There is usually a loudspeaker blaring to announce their existence. And the stores, usually not bigger than a 5X6 foot room, are decorated from corner to corner with tonnes of posters, mostly of superhero movies as that seems popular with the youth. The clerk inside, in most cases, is male, skinny and adolescent.

But video store clerks used to look very different. For one thing, they were at least older. They were the type of people that were expected to look after a store full of video cassettes; they were the type of people that had connections with questionable people who bring bootlegged movies from overseas or at least deal with savvy distributors in Merkato. But not anymore; such connections have become obsolete.

The Internet has made everything easy, even (or is it especially?) stealing. Today’s pirates do not operate on sea, at least not those that steal movies, but surf the Internet. They sit at an Internet café, or anywhere else with a good Internet connection, and bootleg until the sun goes down.

As such, video store clerks look more and more like an out-of-job computer hacker than a shifty, street-smart merchant. And these people make a living. Thanks to bootlegged movies they feed their families, and even pay yearly taxes, contributing to the national economy.

On the other hand, they also help make Ethiopians movie savvy. If it were not for bootlegged movies, everybody would be watching soap operas on the Kana satellite channel, none the wiser that there is something far smarter out there.

This is not to say that bootleggers are saints, but they are far more a valuable part of society than, say, someone who carelessly litters. As long as we remain a Third World country, I say, when it comes to foreign movies, please, bootleg away.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is a writer/film critic at large whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling.

Published on Jul 15,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 898]



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