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Understanding copyrights and pirating in Asia
Kristian Gotthelf

In November of this year the Thai police seized 30,000 music CD’s and a mass production facility. The man who owned the property where the duplicating was being done wept as he vowed not to continue the illegal production and said: “I don’t want to have my family harassed by the police anymore.” The twist in this example is not that the man clearly had priorities when it came to his family (I’ll get to that), but that he is a former member of the Thai parliament.

If this is the attitude of the lawmakers, one can only imagine how it trickles down to ordinary citizens. Indeed, Thailand’s Interior Minister Purachai Piemsomboon said recently that the ring of pirating can not be broken as long as operators enjoy political support.

The way Thais look at intellectual property is shared by other Asians and is part of a deeply rooted mindset, which traces back to ancient cultures and laws. Family values are important here and are much stronger than something as intangible as intellectual property. George T. Haley, who has studied this topic extensively, says that Confucian principles focus more on the duties to society of each individual rather than the individual’s rights or claims, as is the case in the West. One must acquire knowledge elsewhere by working for others in apprenticeship and use this knowledge to start a successful business. This traditional Chinese pattern is still evident in the way Asians form their career today.

Haley further points out that international companies are partly to blame for the violation of their copyrights, because they do not understand the underlying culture in Asia regarding “knowledge that you own.” Many foreign companies are falsely assuming that the rules and moral codes back home apply everywhere. And they are doing so when it is convenient for them from a business perspective. When Microsoft came to Asia and was widely pirated, it was ignored because it helped establish the software giant’s user-ship monopoly worldwide.

So although Thailand and other Asian countries have long since signed the GATT agreement, which includes copyright rules and even has domestic laws making pirating illegal, the former MP turned pirate can be blamed for lawbreaking, but not necessarily for being immoral.

Recently, I spoke to Peter Holmshaw from Orion Investigation – an agency that researches and investigates copyright and trademark violations. His job is also to accompany the police on raids. I asked him what reaction he gets from offenders when a shop is busted. “Some run, some smile and some are relaxed,” he said “but most just look at the confiscation and the fines as part of lost business.” Peter’s clients are mostly Western and Japanese companies wishing to stop counterfeiting, because of lost revenue either locally with retailers in Thailand, or wholesale in the home country. “Right now counterfeit jewelry made here and sold in Japan is a problem.” Peter explains. This means that these companies already have legitimate factories here in Thailand, but apparently the “knowledge” has leaked out.

One stunning statistic Peter shared with me comes from the EU, and states that 45% of all counterfeit goods sold in Europe are either made in, or trafficked through Thailand. An even though a large pull from European tourists in Thailand influence this traffic, the figure is still remarkable. Indeed, whether to blame the buyers or the sellers, the demand or the supply remains an open discussion. When I asked about the recent raids on fake CD’s in the UK and Germany, Peter said that these are exceptions rather than the rule.

What’s the solution? “As Asian countries develop, legitimate businesses and jobs will substitute counterfeiting,” said Peter, citing Taiwan as an example. “Also governments must take an active part rooting out the pirating industry rather than let agencies like Orion do it.”

Finally Peter mentions fake pharmaceuticals competing with real medicine in places like Vietnam. In some cases women are getting pregnant, because they are taking counterfeit birth control pills. Copyright violation may be less important than family values for people in the region, but one could have a pirate-like effect on the other – one counterfeit product may make your family bigger.

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