Can China Win the Battle Against Pirates?

It was official 20 days ago. As of July 1st, 2008, it is illegal in China to upload or download copyrighted information without permission from the original source, according to a report from Xinhua. The article states that “anyone uploading texts, and performance, sound and video recordings to the Internet for downloading, copying or other use, must acquire the permission of the copyright owners and pay the required fee.” Those who violate this new law are subject to a fine of up to 100,000 Yuan (approximately 12,500 USD). According to the report, “Internet providers should delete the content and links upon receiving the written notice from the copyright holders.”

A quick perusal through the popular Chinese media site seems to demonstrate that this new law has had little or no effect on the quantity of movies and TV shows that are available for download. For example, I can still watch last season’s finale of the American TV show “The Office” and watch most if not all of this year’s movie hit “Kung Fu Panda.” There seems to be more content available than ever on a number of Chinese media sites that I have visited. The fact is, you can still find links to almost any copyright material imaginable on a variety of Chinese websites.

Is this surprising? Of course not. Most Chinese people that I know watch their favorite Western and Chinese shows through an online medium. Buying a legal copy of a TV series or a movie is just too expensive for the average Chinese person (and pretty expensive for the average ‘anyone’ in the world as well). Many, especially in the younger generation, will spend an entire night at an Internet cafe, playing games and watching shows and movies. If all of the links to such entertainment suddenly disappeared one day, thousands of Internet cafes across China would lose untold revenue and the economy would most likely suffer. The fact is, illegal downloading and sharing of copyrighted material in China is a big business that is not going away anytime soon.

Am I defending the violation of copyright law? Of course not. It is just that in this case, it is easy to predict that this new copyright law will have little effect on the Chinese entertainment industry. After all, the Chinese government has utterly failed in its fight against pirated DVD’s and music. You do not even have to go into the back alleys of China to find bootlegged copies of the latest Hollywood movies. You can walk into shopping malls and supermarkets and find DVD stores with an entire stock of pirated material. The only problem that Chinese people have to deal with is finding quality copies that are clear and complete.  

Unfortunately, the Chinese government not only has to fight the production of copied material in its own country but it also has to reckon with millions of illegal CD’s, DVD’s, and VCD’s which are smuggled into China from other Asian countries. The government simply does not have enough manpower to deal with the millions of songs, movies, and TV shows that can be downloaded online. In addition, it is likely that those government officials who are in charge of ridding the Internet of copyrighted material are simply not going to pursue the enforcement of this new law very enthusiastically. Whether young or old, no one in China wants to pay premium prices for music and DVD’s. An adult student recently told me that he “did not feel guilty buying bootlegged DVD’s” because otherwise it would be impossible for him to afford the high cost of buying “the real thing.”

So what can the CCP do to effectively enforce this new policy? Well, I suppose they could start by forcing popular media sites like to remove links to copyrighted material. The problem is, there are thousands of sites like around the world which deliver these TV shows and movies to Chinese viewers. It is simply a battle that cannot be won. The best way for the Chinese government and the music companies to combat piracy is to either dramatically lower prices or provide a legal ad supported medium for people to download such material. In light of the recent writers strike in Hollywood and another threatened strike within the movie industry, prices are probably not going down. However, the second idea is already being tested in the United States by some of the major TV networks which have made select TV shows available for free download on their websites.

In the end, this new copyright law is going to suffer the same fate that many other well intentioned laws have suffered in China; most people will probably never even hear about it. I was just in an Internet cafe yesterday. To my right someone was giggling as they watched Meet the Fockers and to my left someone else was spellbound by an old episode of Prison Break. What did I think? I guess I was happy that they could find some enjoyment in the midst of the harsh reality that probably confronts them every day in this developing country.

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