Do these DVDs look pirated to you?


Actually, the movies above were not pirated. They were purchased in Carrefour, a reputable grocery store, for about 20 RMB each. My point is… how can you tell?

A lawyer friend of mine recently visited China. He wouldn’t buy any pirated DVDs because he had heard horror stories of a friend of a friend trying to bring back fifty DVDs and getting busted by U.S. Customs, and fined something like $1,000 per DVD. Scary.

But if I bought fifty of these legit DVDs at Carrefour and tried to take them back home, how would customs know they’re not fake? You can buy pirated DVD-9 DVDs that look just like these. The way I see it, you’d have to show your Carrefour receipt. Your faded, blurry scrap of paper written all in Chinese. Would that really work?

And if it did work, does that mean that all you need to get your DVDs through customs is a receipt? Those would not be hard to produce. Something doesn’t fit.

Does anyone really get busted for bringing pirated DVDs back into the States? If so, can one also get through with legitimate Chinese DVDs? I really wonder this.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I’ve heard the same rumours about people getting busted coming back to Australia. I don’t know how strict they really are.

    I don’t believe they are going to look too closely unless you have a large quantity. But this does raise some issues. I think they are only going to press charges if the discs are obviously fake, since otherwise the case would be hard to prove in court (and who wouldn’t go to court to defend a $50,000 fine?).

    In China I generally only buy DVDs from a store. No doubt many or most of the store-bought DVDs are dodgy, but I feel from a legal point of view by going to a store I’ve taken all due care and diligence – it’s not up to me to do any more research into whether the product was sufficiently licensed or not.

  2. My question is: How do you know they are not pirated? I always assumed that the more expensive DVDs from the fancy stores in China are just the same pirated disks with nicer packaging. I mean 20 RMB is still way less than what you pay for a legit DVD anywhere else, and no one in China is dumb enough to pay 150 RMB or so for a DVD, no matter how legit.

    By the way, I brought home hundreds of DVDs (the 6 RMB kind) in several flights without any problems whatsoever at the border.

  3. Back in ’02 I was given a cache of several hundred DVDs – all pirated – by some people who were afraid that they’d be confiscated going through customs. I was supposed to ship them by post. At the post office, there was no talk of “genuine” or “counterfeit”; the explanation was that I had taken the discs out of their boxes so that they’d be more convenient to mail, and the clerks went along with that line.

    However, they said that I’d need an export receipt from the municipal commerce department. A friend of mine knew someone there, but the guy wouldn’t issue an official stamped receipt for what he and I both knew were bootlegs.

    I’d imagine that individuals could probably get away with fake receipts on a small scale, but repeat efforts or large shipments might require more legitimate documentation.

  4. Going into the UK the rule appears to be, don’t bring in so many that VAT (tax) would be an issue (if it is, then they would charge at the estimated UK price!), personal use only (strip the packaging and put them all in one CD wallet), Do not bring more than one copy of any movie.

    I was stopped a couple of years ago, and customs looked through my discs (about 100) and let me through without comment.

  5. I once dug up what I think was the appropriate US law saying one person entering the country could carry one copy of one title across, provided its legit. If you have a cd book with one hundred different DVDs, and the discs look pretty much like the real thing, I don’t know how they could get you.

    Unless, of course, that customs official is looking to expand the break room collection. That’s the only thing I’d worry about.

  6. As Dave said. You’re pretty much safe unless you’re bringing 50 copies of American Pie: The Naked Mile back home. I’ve “smuggled” thousands of movies back without incident, and I suspect that even if I had been inspected any reasonable customs official would realize my films were solely for a personal collection and not re-sale.

  7. John, I bought a copy of Call of Duty at Carrefour in Chengdu because I figured that would be the best way to avoid pirated software; I was wrong.

    I brought the software home, installed it on my computer and discovered that it was an incomplete hack. I sent an email to the CEO of Activision with pictures of the purchased software, sales receipt and other information. Three weeks later I received a reply requesting more information followed by an express package delivered to my apartment containing both editions of the game as a token of appreciation.

  8. I got caught once in Belgium with 115 DVD’s – in 2004. They basically just confiscated the lot. Fair enough to me.

    Can’t prove this of course but I somehow can’t believe they went straight into some incinerator 😉

    The U.S. may be quite a different ball game though. God knows this Belgian for one is regularly bewildered by them.

  9. Store and price is no indicator in China of legit versus grey copies. I have seen DVDs selling at 50 kuai, an outrageous sum in China, at a huge department store. It was obviously fake. Plus I have also tried buying at the big-box stores and I have to say the quality is crappier at times than the off-the-back of the bicycle variety.

    I have yet to hear of a first-hand account of a dvds at the airport encounter, I keep asking though. AdamP’s account is first hand, but that’s a couple years ago.

    My question is, what’s the appropriate response to a custom’s official question of “Are those pirated DVDs?”

  10. I also don’t know how thorough customs are in enforcing the law. I sent about 20 DVDs by post in one package to my sister last year an dshe got them OK. Also, a friend took 200 or so through customs in the States, where they stopped and went through them all, but let him go after checking…apparently they didn’t offer any comments, and he wasn’t going to ask!

  11. John, i wonder were those DVDs already unwrapped when he was getting through customs?

  12. Think about it from the point of view of Customs. What do they care about? Making money, of course. When I come back to the UK from China, they always ask about cigarettes and alcohol, and nothing else, as that’s where the most excise can be gained. If you import DVDs for personal use [importing only one copy per film is a good way to ensure this is the view taken by any border officers], there is no extra tax to be paid on them, and though maybe strictly speaking they should be policing piracy, in practise it’s not worth it to them. This is my Public Choice Theory-derived opinion, anyway! The fact is no-one has even looked for or asked about DVDs in my luggage.

  13. One of my professors took at hit by customs when he returned from a visit to China last semester. Customs confiscated his DVD’s and fined him $3,000. I’m not sure how many DVD’s he actually had.

  14. There is one absolutely safe way to determine whether a movie or game is pirated or not in China. Turn it around and check it carefully for typos; not only words misspelled, but also incorrect punctuation, too many empty spaces between words , empty spaces before a comma etc.

    These are absolute telltales. No fake I’ve ever seen was without mistakes. Originals are.

  15. I always check 2 items of the same product be it memory cards for my PSP or DVD’s, If the bar code on the back of the box has the same serial number then its a fake, I usually use this to prove its fake before asking for a big discount. Never fails.

  16. Greg Pasden Says: July 8, 2007 at 7:34 am

    Believe it or not… People in Japan and Korea are spending a few hours in the pokey for doing so. I wasn’t an unfortunate person, but we’ve had a few from our company stay there.

  17. feihong Says: July 8, 2007 at 10:53 am

    I’ve seen plenty of fake DVDs sold at Carrefour in Shenyang. It was not always obvious looking at the packaging, but once you pop the disc in it’s easy to tell. Chinese bootleggers don’t care much about reproducing the original product exactly; they purposefully leave out bonus features, deleted scenes, etc so that they can burn the disc quicker and cheaper. Bottom line is, paying extra doesn’t guarantee authenticity.

  18. feihong Says: July 8, 2007 at 10:53 am

    I’ve seen plenty of fake DVDs sold at Carrefour in Shenyang. It was not always obvious looking at the packaging, but once you pop the disc in it’s easy to tell. Chinese bootleggers don’t care much about reproducing the original product exactly; they purposefully leave out bonus features, deleted scenes, etc so that they can burn the disc quicker and cheaper.

  19. Hi Heilong,
    I don’t get it. Barcodes should be the same for the same product. Do you mean two different (though similar) products?

  20. The first time I went to the US (almost 10 years ago), I had to open my suitcase at the Beijing airport. The airport security asked me whether the 20 or 30 CDs, mostly pirated software, were pirated. “Yes, can’t afford the legit ones” was my answer. I guess either the guy had a sense of humor or appreciated my honesty and I was let go, but looking back, it really was too dumb of a smartass move.

  21. Just noticed the two round stickers on the packaging.
    They are called 防伪标志, or anti-pirating mark, often of the laser variety.
    Check them out, they are(were?) huge in China and people actually bought the idea. It always amuses me that one would think a sticker poses any challenge to the pirating industry.

    This begs the question, would the security personnel at LAX give you a pass with that thing?

  22. The Wizard Says: July 8, 2007 at 8:33 pm

    300 DVDs (single copy per movie) through U. S. customs with no problems. It’s a myth. I oculd not find a single news report of any Americans being arrested or fined for returning from China with DVDs.

    A: CD cases. B: Not in carry-ons. C: no packaging D: No intent to dsitribute them (not that anyone could tell that, but it’s worth stating for the record).

    In America, the “bust” reports are bogus.

  23. I would suspect the worst they can do is confiscate the DVDs. Did they declare the DVDs on their customs slip? If you say you have 100 dvds and the value is $250, they’ll be hard pressed to argue that they’re $0.50 pirated copies.

    When I came through I put all the DVDs in CD cases, and I brought a lot of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese movies. Unless they searched every book, it was more likely they’d find a bunch of Chinese movies. One thing I did worry about was that I had brought a few DVDs from the U.S. to use for a class, and I wondered if they would get confiscated.

  24. I wonder if time spent in China makes a difference.

  25. that is disgusting…. the american version of 無間道… I’m so disappointed it won best film. that version is pure caca

  26. LOL !!!
    Andy (aka the ABC),
    Where did you get this french expression “pure caca” ?
    That’s the first time I read that from someone in the US.
    Most of the time it’s “pure merde” or “grosse merde”.

  27. @Lantian
    you said “I don’t get it. Barcodes should be the same for the same product. Do you mean two different (though similar) products?”

    Yes, I mean similar products, for example I was looking at a copy of Photoshop in a DA JIA TING store and then picked up a street fighter game, They both had the exact same barcode, Ive also seen the same barcode on books. Its lick the pirates have just one barcode that they stick on the back of every thing.

  28. parasitius (Justin) Says: July 9, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    It’s pretty easy — legit copies WILL NOT play on a USA region code DVD player, and so they are essentially worthless in USA (for reselling). The only way you can watch’em is taking a Chinese region code DVD player home with you… So just invite customs to try to play any of your DVD’s on a USA dvd players — they’ll probably be satisfied.
    AS for the dude who mentioned typos — I thought it was a good way at first too. Actually a lot of huge USA movie companies have absolute MORONs working at their offices on this side, guys whose job it is to retype a simple copyright notice but still haven’t learned the alphabet completely (you know how many letters look almost exaclty the same ‘a’ ‘o’ ‘e’ or ‘l’ and ‘t’). So the strategy doesn’t work. Anyone seen the LEGIT 35kuai verison of Mongolian Ping-pong? Pure Chinglish all the way through. Made me sick to my stomach.

  29. Walmart, Careffour do not sell the DVDs, they actually rent out that area to a private seller of DVDs, audio discs. Notice if you are to buy a DVD you don’t go thru Carrefour checkout and get a Carefour receipt, they have their own little cashier for the DVDs and you get a different receipt that doesn’t say its from Carefour.

  30. Brought back dvds that are illegal and I received no problems. Granted these were more like 8 DVDs but I’m assuming that you get no hassle if you bring back a relatively low amount.

  31. The Wizard Says: July 10, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    parasitius: Most “legit’ Chinese DVDs are actually region free, in spite of the R6 moniker. the few, legal DVDs released (i. e. Warner Bros discs) are usually cut, so it’s not even worth buying some of them. Stick with the “if it isn’t G then it’s not worth buying legaLY.”

    I’ll add that nearly every China-manufactured DVD player can be remote-hacked and thus become region-free. So, buy a cheap Wal-Mart player and you have a universal DVD player. Some HD-DVD players are completely region free as well. The brother-in-law just purchased some American films on French HD-DVD because they were only BluRay releases in the U. S., and sure enough, my pal, R2 standard TV DVDs played fine in his player, but activated the region-lock on a first gen SONY standard DVD player I’ve had for a decade.

    moving on:
    I’ve only seen a handful of legitimate DVDs in China. They’re easy to spot (i. e. Warner Bros discs) and they run upwards of 22RMB a pop. They are on the Warner label, too. few Chinese films (a lot of Zhang Yimou’s stuff, for example) are easily found in legit copies from the movie sections of bookstores (at least in Shanghai).

  32. 音弗丽娅 Says: July 10, 2007 at 10:26 pm

    I’ve heard of someone who got fined $100k for bringing in DVDs, may be an exaggeration thou…

    If you want to bring it in through customs, do it through a cd case way. That’s what my friend did, and I don’t think they even checked. Anywya, why risk customs? Rent the dvd for a couple of bucks from Netflix or something, and just rip it off your self.

  33. I’ve taken hundreds of DVD’s and TV shows back to Canada and the U.S from China. I’ve never had any problems. I just made sure that I removed all the DVD’s from their original packaging and put them in a CD case. I’ve also mailed DVD’s home this way. Authorities assume that if you’re transporting things this way, it’s a personal collection and not something you want to sell.

  34. The Wizard Says: July 12, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    I’ve heard of someone who got fined $100k for bringing in DVDs, may be an exaggeration thou…

    “Heard.” That’s the key word. “Heard.” The MPAA are so happy to bust anyone for piracy that they would have a media blitz on each and every case of someone getting busted for it. As a result, unless you actually have evidence, what you “hear” is b. s.


    The MPAA thrive on fear mongering and publicity from such busts via customs are a media opportunity. So, if you “heard” about it, why isn’t there any evidence about it? Think about it….

  35. Region coding is not a fool-proof way of identifying counterfeit. There’s nothing special about how DVDs are region encoded.

    DVD’s all contain a header, a small chunk of data at the beginning of the DVD. The header contains information about the DVD, such as the region encoding.

    The header information is written to the DVD during manufacturing. It can easily be altered counterfeiters during their production process.

    So, if you purchased a ‘region free’ DVD it is certainly counterfeit. However, if a DVD with region encoding is not necessarily legit.

    I actually go out of my way to avoid legit DVDs because they are categorically inferior. Region encoding, limited languages, user lock outs, price.

    Sounds like Carefoure’s management understands how business is done in China.

  36. Two classmates of mine took a large amount of computer games (fake) back from BJ to the Netherlands. One brought them home without a problem, one was found out. The games were confiscated, and the classmate was fined. I forgot how much exactely, it wasn’t an outrageous amount but a lot more than the games had been worth.
    Ok, again not a first-hand story. Still, I think there is a risk, and I wouldn’t take hundreds of DVSs home. (When are you ever going to have time to watch those anyway? I’d bring the good ones and leave the rest.)

  37. gringostar Says: July 31, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    Will the Chinese DVD’s work on my Sony Vaio laptop?? I don’t bother with DVD players.

  38. Vicki Lawson Says: September 13, 2007 at 12:50 am

    I’ve taken about 20 or 30 discs at a time from Indonesia and China, in their cases, and no one batted an eye. China mostly wanted to know if I was importing or exporting porn; sort of like the moral police. I’m not sure I believe the pirated DVDs-hunting dogs. I mean, how realistic is it?

  39. Check out 17 U.S.C. § 602, part of the Copyright Act of 1976 . . . at least theoretically, if you’re bringing only single copies of each particular movie, and it’s for personal use only (or to GIVE, not SELL, to a friend or family member) you can’t be fined because you’re not doing anything illegal even though you’re bringing pirated movies through customs.

    Haven’t passed the bar yet, so this is not legal advice, just my read on it.

  40. The two DVDs in the pictures are legit release.
    the one on the left is from Warner
    the one on the right is from Zoke Culture since Warner doesn’t hold the DVD right of this title in China and Hong Kong.

    The very first guide to Chinese DVDs in English. You must read and all questions would be sovled.

    “A Guide to Chinese DVDs (authentic, bootleg and grey zone)”

  41. Japanese customs once looked into my luggage on the way back from China and saw ca. 100 DVDs. Didn’t bat an eyelid. Other than that, never been searched. I guess if you’re worried then connecting flights are your friend – when you come off the bird from China, your luggage is in the bowels of the airport, when you walk out, you’re from a short-hop commuter flight (this works better if you’re “neat freak” enough to remove the baggage tags on sight).

  42. What if the person is not a citizen but immigrating.Do they even need to report that they are bringing their collection?

  43. Nigel Kaiser Says: April 7, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    First hand account of my sister and her husband in the Detroit County Airport, spring 2008. This is not just bogus in America.

    I lived in China for two years and they came to see me and visit me often. I took them to some famous stores in Beijing and other cities that you could get discounted dvds (most of them legit) and other things for a fraction of the store price. Most of them are real, but some of them, I suspect are fake. Often though, it’s really hard to tell.

    They were pulled aside and almost everything they bought was confiscated b/c the policemen at customs claimed, “There’s no way you could be buy real Puma shoes for $15 each!” and “There’s no way you could buy golf clubs in China (Ping brand) for only $250!” And along with DVDs, purses, a lew of shoes, etc….all of them were confiscated. My brother in law said, “How do you know these were fake, we bought them at actual stores—like the golf clubs was from a big golf club store, and they accepted credit card and it was not in some back alley market” and the policemen just looked at them and said, “There’s no way they coudl be so cheap. They’re fake.” They basically threatened to charge them with criminal charges and took everything. Gifts they had bought for nieces and nephews….it’s all ridiculous. My bigest annoyance is this: In China, as I’ve lived there for a long time, the equivilent prices in RMB are actually (although not translated into much in USD), fairly high and comprible to USD when it comes to Chinese currency. Meaning, if you buy golf clubs for $250 USD (about $1750 RMB) that is like paying in the US, $1750 for them. There were some more expensive clubs at the golf club shop (I was there, and talked to them in chinese) but contrary to what the stupid customs man says, none of them in the shop were $2000 USD. The most expensive set was about $600 USD. Guess what U.S. Customs guys…you know shit and I can’t beleive my sister and her husband’s gifts for their families were ruined because of some guy in uniform with a power/ego trip. It’s just ridiculous. They threatened to fine them (even though, besides a few of the dvds, they really could not have legal ground to do so) and it’s all used to scare U.S. citizens into being afraid of the government. It’s sick and sad. I wish my tax dollars went to actually catch those people who were smuggling babies and drugs. The likelihood of their being one person per every 400 people on a plane from China to the U.S. that is smuggling drugs/people is very likely, yet, I’ve flown from China to the U.S. 9-10 times in the past 2 years and never saw them catch one person.

    Do your job Customs Patrol, and stop scaring American tourists from visiting other countries and buying stuff a little cheaper than you could here. It’s just ridiculous. To top it off, my sister and her husband’s passports have been marked!! How sick is this?

    So the rumors aren’t all true, no jail time I’ve heard, but this is as of April 2008, this happened… better to not speak about anything and just try to make it past. Chances are they’re not going to check you out unless you say, “I got a good deal on X in China.”

  44. How is confiscating fake shoes and golf clubs from an individual, with no intent to resell, anywhere near legal in the US? What were they going to be charged with?

  45. patrick Says: June 16, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    They should have just overstated the price a bit, afterall its not like you’d have to keep receipts. In fact they dont even have to say its brand new, it could be a gift from a friend or something. Either way it’s not illegal if there is no intent to sell, and if they can’t prove that there’s intent to sell/make profit, then they can’t charge you with anything

  46. OffWhite Says: March 18, 2011 at 8:49 am

    BEn said: ‘No fake I’ve ever seen was without mistakes. Originals are.’

    Mr BEn, if you believe legal originals have no mistakes, you need to look harder. I’ve seen many movies sold at Target and Best Buy where the text contains the mistakes you mentioned. I think a lot of companies are being cheap and just get some marketing intern to write the copy and then check it for accuracy using software.

    Some companies (whether they’re DVD producers, publications, advertising agencies, and the like) still care and will spend money on experienced writers and editors. These must be the ones whose product you’ve seen. Other companies, though, (and I’m not just talking about small ones) don’t want to spend the money and wind up with boneheaded mistakes on their product, which makes your spelling/grammar/punctuation accuracy test rather suspect.

    It’s a sad day when errors start cropping up in ‘professionally’ produced goods, but that day has come.

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