I came across this extremely interesting article today on the iCommons site:
Copyright as a Western Concept
Wednesday, March 7th, 2007 at 4:20 am
This month, iCommons' resident copyright expert, Tobias Schonwetter, discusses the antinomy between copyright law and culture in many regions of the world.
"Much of what we took for granted in our system and had grown to assume to be human nature was not nature at all, but culture."
(Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve of the United States of America)
Acquire a CD in China and chances are that you have bought an unauthorised copy. According to the latest surveys, approximately 90% of the CDs in China are "pirated" – and for that reason it most certainly makes a lot of sense to ask what the underlying cause of this phenomenon is. Is it because people in China cannot afford legally distributed material? This may well be the case, but as an answer it’s not good enough - it doesn’t explain why unauthorised copying in some Asian countries is so much more widespread than in other (equally poor or even poorer) regions of our world. Are we witnessing a peculiar form of disrespectful behaviour in such cases? Indeed we are - but not in the manner you may think.
Customs officers pack up pirate CDs during a raid in Guangzhou, China. Photo by Richard Jones
I believe that we have to admit that Western cultures do tend to display a disrespectful attitude towards Asian and other cultures. This is not as absurd as it might sound – especially if you consider that our current copyright system is clearly a Euro-centric concept, as well as being a rather young one. It was only by way of colonisation that this concept started to spread into other regions of the world. In recent years, copyright protection has spread even further, as it was often made obligatory for participation in world trade by means of bilateral or multilateral trade agreements. Hence, its economic might, rather than the common belief in the core principles which makes the concept of copyright a universal one.
Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that copyright protection is still somewhat alien and incomprehensible to many people in some regions of the world, essentially because it openly conflicts with many of these people's old traditions and beliefs. The notion of individualism (as well as economic-driven considerations) played a determinative role for the development of copyright protection in Europe and later in the United States of America. However, neither the notion of individualism nor economic considerations have reached the same level of importance in certain other cultures as they have in the Western world.
The situation in China illustrates this problem. Clearly, China has introduced a number of intellectual property laws and regulations since the mid-1990s. Yet unauthorised reproduction remains rampant and it is commonly accepted that lax enforcement of intellectual property rights is to blame. Of course, this argument is one-sided and does not sufficiently explain why in other regions of the world with less protection and even weaker enforcement mechanisms, unauthorised copying is not as prevalent.
L: Disney characters hang out at a book fair in Beijing. (by Michael Williamson - The Post); C: Two women in chadors walk past the Charlie Chaplin Theater at the Bahman Cultural Center in Tehran. (By John Lancaster - The Post); R: Vendors in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, say they buy pirated CDs from China and Macao. (By Steve Raymer - The Post)
In this case, however, the point is the apparent incompatibility of copyright protection and fundamental cultural norms, in China's case, Confucian beliefs. The Confucian doctrine puts emphasis on the importance of sharing intellectual products with society. In fact, copying someone else's work is a high form of flattery and it is considered dishonourable for a learned person to make money by way of writing a book. Admittedly, Confucianism is not the sole reason for widespread copyright infringement and lack of enforcement in this regard. Rather, a multitude of reasons - which are to some extent interdependent - must be considered, such as the stage of economic development China has reached or the existence of a socialist economic system. Without this, it is almost impossible to explain why in other countries with equal or even stronger Confucian roots (namely Korea and Japan) copyright infringement is not as widespread or why unauthorised copying has been equally prevalent at some point in history in Western countries. However, to ignore the antinomy between the law and culture would be negligent. [read on...]
Some background history on the subject, via a 2004 BBC News article:
The number of pirated CDs has shot up to 1.1bn discs worldwide a year, but the growth in the illegal trade is slowing, according to a report.
Spain, Taiwan and Pakistan are seen as problem countries
The International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI) reports the pirate music trade is now worth $4.5bn (£2.4bn) each year.