Makers of culture have always been fascinated by their own perilous dance with poverty. From the starving artist and the actor-as-waiter to the washed-up writer and the dive bar crooner, the hapless tale of the creative-gone-broke has been a reliable storyline for centuries. But in the last twenty years, the plot has shifted from nobody caring about the arts to just nobody paying for them. The problem is piracy. The same technology that has made media smaller and more versatile has also empowered people with only an average understanding of computers and the Web to bypass the Borders and Circuit Cities and steal all the music, video, and software they want. The effects have been palpable and immediate. Billions have been lost in profits, colossal lawsuits have been filed against downloaders, and once-sturdy structures on the American retail landscape have collapsed. “You didn’t bring down the record companies,” one character says to Justin Timberlake as Napster-founder Sean Parker in last year’s film The Social Network. “You want to buy a Tower Records?” he coolly replies. It’s a great scene. If you haven’t seen it, a Google search for “the social network online free” pulls up 129 million hits.
The sheer volume of global bootlegging is astonishing. Some estimate that twenty songs are downloaded illegally for every one obtained on the up-and-up, and e-books, film, and software don’t fare much better. The culprits are often young men age 16 to 24, and while many live in America, most are overseas. The lead buccaneers of the Information Age are Russia, Thailand, and Poland, and the head honcho is China, which pirates anything and everything with startling efficiency. It’s like Butch and Sundance rolled into one. Experts estimate that 8 in 10 software products and 9 in 10 DVDs in China are bootlegged. Theft of ink-and-paper books using handheld scanning technology is so prevalent that bookstores in Beijing post signs that read “Scanning books is stealing. Scanning pens prohibited,” and a 2008 report by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry announced that 99 percent of music downloads in China were illegal. The problem isn’t just limited to the realm of the digital. A few minutes searching through Google for “China AND piracy” pulls up tales of fake Apple stores in Kunming, fake furniture stores in Shanghai, and fake celebrity endorsements on ads in the airports. The release of each Harry Potter title in China has been preceded by dozens of knock-offs, some borrowing text from other classic fantasy novels like The Hobbit, and faithful readers can be found paging through the popular books at cafés like Bucksstar Coffee and restaurants like Pizza Huh and KLG.
How did China’s cultural economy come to depend so much on fraud and theft? People who study this question offer a few different explanations. One is that the Chinese government just hasn’t been very interested in enforcing intellectual property laws because piracy hasn’t been hurting the country’s bottom line. Up until quite recently, China’s export-driven economy was built almost entirely around the holy triumvirate of weak currency, vast natural resources, and an endless supply of inexpensive labor. While creative industries have grown in the country over the past thirty years, they simply haven’t amounted to enough to attract real legal protection. Another explanation takes the opposing view and argues that the problem isn’t an absence of regulation but an excess of it. Chinese people have long had their access to international culture tightly controlled by government censors who block websites, ban films, and stymie the spread of dissenting books and pamphlets. Piracy, especially movie piracy, developed to evade an authoritarian state and get foreign and subversive ideas to the masses. Finally, others believe that the problem has less to do with the amount of government and more to do with a pervasive sense among the Chinese people that DVDs and video games just cost too damn much. Here, here!
Whatever the reason is, the global business community has felt the squeeze and has spent the last decade searching for ways to fix the problem. It has complained to the American government and the World Trade Organization, which have in turn put pressure on China to ramp up IP law enforcement. Beijing has acquiesced, although reports about dramatic police busts and increased prosecution and penalties seem all too reminiscent of America’s floundering war on drugs. Ever the innovators, some Western corporations have tried to address the issue by making their products pirate-proof. Warner Bros.’ has decided to run the bootleggers out of town by competing with them on price. In 2005, the film studio began selling DVDs in major Chinese cities for a little less than $3, an amount still triple the cost of illegal goods but an incredible bargain once the customer factors in video quality and decreased risk. In 2008, Microsoft rigged its Windows operating system to drape the screen in black every 60 minutes when it was run on unregistered computers. Users complained but continued to run the booby-trapped software.
Indeed, at this point it seems hard to imagine any top-down trickery having any great success in reforming China’s Borgesian black market of fuzzy copies and fraudulent goods. And even if it could be solved, what would emerge in its place? A vibrant culture of creative license and originality? Not likely. In 2011, a fifth of Hollywood’s new releases were sequels and prequels – a record high for the film industry. In 2010, 8 of the 15 best-selling books were sequels or spin-offs (and that’s not including George Bush’s Decision Points – didn’t we already see that movie?). Has any edition of Microsoft Windows looked or worked any differently than the one before it? In many ways, the Great Powers on both sides of the Pacific have cultural economies built on duplication and repackaging. The big difference? My Netflix account just doubled its price. In China, their DVDs still cost just 60 cents.