Brussels — Pushing a button in a bathtub opened a secret door in a linen closet . . . and, hey presto, there was a secret recording studio capable of illegally duplicating thousands of movies and television programs a day.
A recent Brussels police raid turned up the secret recording laboratory. But the lab was only one of dozens operating in Belgium, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and other European countries.
Last year Belgian police confiscated 60,000 illegally-recorded cassettes on their way to all corners of Europe and the globe. There have been similar raids in the United States, the Far East, and elsewhere on illicit labs. These operations copy films and programs for sale or rent at much lower cost than through normal channels that respect copyright laws and pay royalties.
Such pirated video tapes have been flooding the international market. They provide the latest example of a major worldwide trade in counterfeit products - ranging from automobile parts, computers, and medicines, to ''E. T.'' dolls and numerous luxury goods.
To customers all over the world, these goods at first appear to be the same as those crafted by famous manufacturers . . . except that they cost much less. In reality they are frequently lower-quality imitations which have become a significant problem for the sales and image of the authentic producer.
International attention in recent years has been aimed at negotiating a treaty within the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in Geneva to forbid such copyright infringement. The International Chamber of Commerce in Paris, the European Association of Industries of Branded Products in Brussels, and a number of industries and countries have pressed in vain for such action in recent years.
Only recently, Taiwan (which is internationally noted as a haven for such counterfeiters) tightened its laws against the practice. Its compliance is being monitored closely by victimized Western companies.
Paris-based investigators working for the legitimate film industry were responsible for tracking down the illegal videocassette studios in Belgium. Reportedly, this country has become a distribution center for bootleg cassettes produced in northern Europe. A French film production company, for instance, discovered some 50 of its movies offered in the catalogue of a Belgian video-club without its consent and without having received any copyright royalties for such use.
Investigators posing as ordinary video fans enrolled as members of various videocassette clubs and established a list of distributors of pirated cassettes.
The ensuing police raids dismantled dozens of commercial outlets and secret recording studios. Some of the latter were equipped with as many as 100 video tape recorders, operating virtually day and night to produce thousands of fake copies of major films or television programs. Such operations represented major investments for the pirates in equipment, which was said to burn out and need replacement after several months of heavy use.
Brussels seems to have been the hub of the film-copying pirate operations. Reproduction of television programs for sale in television-starved Africa and the Middle East was located in the Flanders region. It has been estimated that some 60 percent of the French-language videocassette films sold in the world come from pirate Belgian studios.
The video pirates received master copies of major feature films, sometimes before they were released to the public, from accomplices in the production companies or in movie houses. The pirate network is so sophisticated that it can solve language differences by providing its own subtitles or dubbing voices onto the original copy it obtains from accomplices in Hollywood or other studios.
The result is that in some countries video owners at home could view a pirated version of major motion pictures such as ''E. T.,'' ''Rocky III,'' or ''The Blade Runner'' before the movie was shown in their local cinema. And they could watch it at rental fees lower than the price of a movie ticket.
The boom of this underground industry has been spawned by the worldwide craze in video tape recorders and players which has been especially pronounced in Western Europe. There were some 4.5 million video tape recorders sold in the 10 European Common Market countries in 1982, according to EC sources, in contrast to the 2.1 million in the United States. And the EC sales are expected to increase to 5.5 million in 1983.
With each owner a potential buyer or renter of prerecorded cassettes, the video market is a fertile field for the pirate network. So far it has continued to thrive despite police raids.