China’s intellectual property rights

Amy Siebels

Characters from South Park, somewhat out of focus, appear in the background of the slide. A shadowy humanlike figure protrudes from the lower edge of the frame, and a line of Chinese characters runs across the bottom.This picture says a lot: it was taken from a pirated copy of the “South Park” movie, purchased in a market in China. The characters are subtitles, and the figure is a person trying to find a seat in the theatre where the video was made.

Guest lecturer Andrew Mertha used this slide Wednesday to illustrate China’s trademark and copyright infringement problems in a lecture called “Piracy, Politics, and Parallel Systems: Variation in Local Enforcement of Intellectual Property in China.”

Mertha, an assistant professor of political science at Washington University, appeared as part of a lecture series on East Asian politics and economics sponsored by the Lawrence government department and the Henry Luce foundation. The foundation supports East Asian studies on college campuses.

Mertha spent fourteen months in China in 1998-99, researching the politics of economics. During his stay he had the rare chance to accompany a piracy investigation firm on a raid. The firm, hired by an American company operating in China, collaborated with the Administration for Industry and Commerce (AIC) to catch the pirates. According to Mertha, AIC probably accepted the case in anticipation of the celebratory banquet that evening, an event that featured dinner, drinks, karaoke, and “massage.”

In other words, Chinese governmental agencies have little incentive to prosecute intellectual property violations. The problem is not the lack of laws: “In terms of the books, things look fine,” Mertha said. “It’s really in terms of the enforcement.”

One obstacle is the lack of personnel to do such jobs. One slide from the presentation read, “In Jiangsu Province, there is one full-time Provincial Copyright Department employee for every 24 million people.” For all of China’s approximately 1.2 billion people, there are only about 200 such officials.

Even if they had enough officers, local governments might not want to give up the economic benefits of piracy. In some markets where illegal merchandise is sold, for example, stall rentals can raise $870,000 (U.S.) per year. That is why, Mertha says, “it’s very often in the interests of local governments to look the other way.”

While China has some success enforcing trademarks (thanks largely to the AIC and the Technical Supervision Bureau), there is almost no protection for copyrights. Unlike trademarks, copyrights are entangled in the politically charged cultural arena.

Part of this problem is China’s negative image of Microsoft and other “hegemonic” corporations, which some Chinese consider the opium of the 21st century: the U.S. firms addict the population and draw huge profits. Thus, some citizens are more likely to buy pirated versions of software than to give their money to an American bully.

According to Mertha, the issue is important both in China and in the U.S., where it costs companies up to $3 billion a year. As technology improves, the situation will only get worse.