Evil Olympics, Day Nine: How The Chinese Steal Our Intellectual Property

Intellectual property is important because it is how a culture is created in a capitalist society. It is how technology is encouraged to advance. It is responsible for the countless innovations and richness of our lives. Respecting and enforcing the intellectual property of others — copyrights, patents, trade secrets — is fundamental to the value of our civilizations.

In that sense, China is a different civilization than ours. In theory, the PRC is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization and therefore it is charged with enforcing internationally-registered copyrights, trademarks, and patents consistent with the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. And in 1998, special intellectual property courts were created in China to attempt enforcement. The problem is that limiting control of particular works to the artists who created them (so that they can be exploited for profit for a time) seems to be a concept foreign to the PRC. I cannot determine whether there is simply a lack of education about it, or some kind of a a cultural incompatibility with the concept.

But foreign businesspeople seem to repeat, again and again, that when they discuss the idea of copying the intellectual work of someone else as a moral wrong, their Chinese counterparts return blank, uncomprehending stares — they simply don’t get it. These are ideas, not property, they seem to think; how can anyone own an idea like “beauty” or “efficiency”?

It seems that while the leadership of the country wants to make a show of trying to enforce intellectual property laws, but there is no real desire to do so, no real understanding of why it is important other than that all of China’s Western trade partners seem to think it is terribly important.

So China remains high, and maybe even still atop, the list of nations where intellectual piracy is an industrial-scale problem. Pirated movies, albums, books, software, handheld electronic devices, and counterfeited designer merchandise of all sorts are openly manufactured and sold both within China and exported for sale on street corners as far away as Kansas City and Pisa. Chinese-hosted websites remain the primary nexus for file-sharing, and the masters of these websites possess sufficient technical skill to hide themselves from the simple sorts of traces that all but the most sophisticated enforcers might use. There is no will on the part of the Chinese government to expend the resources necessary to rigorously police its own corners of the internet for this; they are too busy clamping down on criticism of themselves to bother with what, in their hearts, they consider to be legitimate businessmen.

The outsourcing of much legitimate reproduction work to the tens of thousands of companies in China — reprinting authorized DVDs of videos, for instance — has led to the creation of an industrial infrastructure that lends itself to the quick, inexpensive, large-scale, and anonymous piracy of newly-released artistic works, to the substantial financial detriment of the artists who created them. New music CDs and new movie DVDs (the latter of which are frequently of movies still in theaters in the U.S.) can be had for as little as one U.S. dollar on a Beijing street corner — although I’m willing to bet that most of those “merchants” have been shuttled away from sporting, media and housing venues by authorities acting at the direction of the image-conscious Communist Party authorities during the Olympics.

Don’t believe me? Ask the U.S. Government, who characterizes the problem in China as “improving” but still “serious” and a “priority” for future enforcement efforts.

What, after all, can one say about a country whose tradition of counterfeiting the intellectual and cultural achievements of others is so rich that it enjoys its own epithet? The phrase “Chinese copy” means to crudely reverse-engineer a device without gaining any understanding of the science or concern for precision that may have gone into an original. The People’s Republic of China has been doing this for well over a hundred years, particularly with military technology from the west — one remarkable example includes the startling resemblance of the PRC Tu-4 bomber to an American B-29. A government may lead by example as well as by enforcement of laws.

To some extent, we have to allow for China, as a sovereign nation, to set its own agenda for priority in law enforcement and to choose for itself the way it will govern these issues. But particularly if China is going to sign off on international treaties promising the rest of the world that intellectual property rights will be enforced and valued within its borders, and we do business with them concerning these valuable commodities in reliance on those assurances, we have a right and a reasonable expectation that the Chinese will do what they promise. And we are entitled to maintain our beliefs and priorities, too — if China is a land with a high incidence of intellectual property theft, chalking up that theft to a “cultural mismatch” is only worth so much.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.