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China: What Motivates Pirates Of Intellectual Property?

  • Andrew Tully

Everybody likes to get something for nothing. And in some parts of the world, notably China, theft of music, films and software -- known as "intellectual property" -- is often a thriving industry. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully asked political and social analysts whether the communist teaching of communal ownership contributes to such piracy in China. Here is his report.

Washington, 9 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- "Intellectual property" has become a weighty term in Washington.

Most recently -- on Wednesday -- Bill Gates, the chairman and founder of the Microsoft Corporation, complained that a judge's decision to break the software company in two amounts to the government seizing intellectual property that becomes too popular.

And about two weeks ago, the issue came up during the debate over whether the United States should give China the same access to its markets as it does with close allies like Britain or France.

Opponents of more open trade with China noted that some of the largest enterprises for pirating films, music, and software operate out of China, and that the Chinese should be punished, not rewarded, for letting this happen. Supporters of increased trade say that once China becomes accustomed to trading with the capitalist world, it will quickly recognize the importance of protecting intellectual property.

But why does China have the reputation as a haven for electronic pirates? Is it because its people, ruled for more than a half-century by Marxists, have no sense of individual property.

Experts interviewed by RFE/RL say this is not necessarily the case. Rather, it is an issue of an economy in transition.

Bruce Dickson is a professor of political science specializing in Chinese affairs at George Washington University in Washington. He says 50 years of Marxism is only part of the problem in China. The other element is simply wanting something for nothing.

"There may be an additional aspect in China that, because there hasn't been private property really of any kind -- you know, up until recently you couldn't own your own apartment or your own house and this kind of stuff -- everything was communal property and therefore treated rather poorly. There may be a residue of that, but, I mean, there's both elements to it."

In fact, Dickson says the government in Beijing is sincerely trying to put an end to the wholesale theft of intellectual property.

"The central government is eager to do it, but they can't control what local governments do. Local governments are glad to promote piracy if in fact it promotes jobs and other activity at the local level."

Mark Groombridge -- a specialist in intellectual property at the Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank -- goes even further. He says communist teachings have nothing to do with the some people's disregard for intellectual property rights.

"I don't think it has much to do with the fact that it was sort of a Marxist or a communist government, because if you look around the world, a number of countries violate intellectual property rights, and it primarily has as much -- I mean, the common theme or thread is sort of their stage of economic development. That tends to be the primary sort of driving force or indicator."

In fact, Groombridge says, China's record has been improving recently -- not because of pressure from the European Union or the U.S., but because of pressure from its own fledgling software and music industries that are demanding protection of their profits.

"These companies now and these artists are saying -- going to the Chinese state and saying, 'Look, it's, you know, now it's us who are, you know, suffering, not just foreigners.' And so that argument resonates more strongly with the state, of course, because they recognize that their own citizens are beginning to suffer."

In fact, Dickson, the George Washington University professor, says that what drives the Chinese bootleg industry is no different that what drives Americans who download free music and computer software from the World Wide Web:

"You know, I think the incentive to cheat is high no matter what kind of system of government you've got."

In fact, both men agreed that such piracy is motivated by how much money an individual has to spend -- and the universal satisfaction of getting something for nothing.