Latvia: Land of Pirates?

One of the great challenges of Latvia’s foreign policy makers, its ambassadors, and its cultural activists is to improve the image of the country in the eyes of outsiders. However, within the international music and software businesses Latvia’s image in recent months has become tarnished. Despite several years of anti-piracy promotions and police crackdowns, just three months ago, Latvia was named among the countries where pirating of recorded music is the highest. And in September, claiming that 90 percent of software in use in Latvia is pirated, Microsoft Inc. announced a marketing campaign aimed at encouraging consumers to purchase legal copies of its products.

During the past several years, late August through early September in Latvia has been the time for a big anti-piracy push. Led by LaMPA, the Latvian Music Producers Association, music producers, artists, and media have united in an effort to raise the public’s awareness about music piracy. At times, these efforts have been coupled with well-publicized police raids on vendors in open-air markets in Rīga.

This year was no different. LaMPA organized a slogan contest for signs to be used at a September 1 protest outside the parliament building (the contest promotion included a rather melodramatic warning to consumers, reminding them that by purchasing pirated music they were supporting “murder for hire”). Radio stations played no music for one hour on September 1, while music stores opened later than usual and the three leading TV channels played no music videos. The same day, state revenue agents announced the results of a raid in a market, netting 1,600 compact discs containing pirated music and software.

But Latvia’s piracy rate remains high and, if figures are to be believed, is increasing. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), more that 50 percent of the compact discs and cassettes sold in the Latvian market are pirated. That now puts Latvia in the company of such other pirate havens as Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria and Estonia.

Worldwide in 1998, pirated music sales represented a third of all sales, or USD 4.5 billion. Although the situation looks bad, one reason for the apparent increase in pirate sales in Latvia is that the acknowledgement and reporting of the problem has increased, says Elita Milgrāve, director of the music publishing company MICREC and head of LaMPA. “The problem has always existed,” she tells, “but we have obtained more information about it and have more closely monitored it. Thus, we have been able to clarify the degree of piratism.”

One problem the anti-piracy movement has is the lack of hard data about the illegal business. “Everything is pirated!” complains Milgrāve. Organized distribution brings into Latvia illegal compact discs from Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and other locations, while pirated cassettes are produced domestically. Provisional data suggest that in one year about 1 million pirated CDs came into Latvia just through the Grenctale border point. In all, authorities figure that Latvia loses about LVL 5 million annually in tax revenue because of pirated recordings, Milgrāve says. Sales of pirated recordings tend not to include the work of Latvian artists, but nonetheless hurt the local music business by robbing music publishers of revenue that could be directed toward Latvian artists’ projects.

Perhaps one reason for the current success of music pirates in Latvia is that they provide an affordable product to consumers who otherwise might not be able to afford to shop for legal recordings in legitimate stores. A pirated CD might cost about LVL 2.50 to 3.00, while legal CDs might cost two to four times more. But Milgrāve argues that’s not a justification. “If I can afford one original pair of jeans,” she says, “I buy those rather than going to the market to buy three pairs of knock-offs. I know that those are illegal, that I’m being cheated. I know they aren’t quality products.” The same principles apply to recorded music, Milgrāve adds, pointing out that there’s also a moral question involving one’s support of a favorite artist.

Milgrāve notes that sellers of pirated recordings usually have disappeared underground when the annual anti-piracy activities pick up. However, in recent weeks the efforts of revenue police and other authorities appear to have been sustained, thanks in part to recent changes in state laws and agreements between the music publishing industry and law enforcement officials. Of course, it’s too early to tell whether the effort will pay off in the long run and will enable Latvia to salvage its image in the music publishing industry.

(Editor’s note: This article orginally appeared on

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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