Will China’s move towards a knowledge economy decrease IP violations?


This guest post on the state of copyright in China is written by Kingston MA Publishing student James McCall.

Ever since the western world began engaging and trading with The People’s Republic of China after the Second World War, the country has been viewed as a major replicator and appropriator of material supposedly protected by copyright law. Despite this reputation, The Hargreaves Review, the UK Government’s independently commissioned review of copyright law, states that violations will decrease as China develops a knowledge economy. Given the country’s aspirations to develop just such an economy, is such a scenario likely?

More than 20,000 books were exchanged at a fair organised to mark the 2012 World Book and Copyright Day at the Capital Library, Beijing.  Photo by KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/REX

More than 20,000 books were exchanged at a fair organised to mark the 2012 World Book and Copyright Day at the Capital Library, Beijing. Photo by KeystoneUSA-ZUMA/REX

With 500 million books, 40% of the Chinese market, pirated, the scale of infringement may be too large to ever tackle. While trade publishing is the most frequently pirated sector of the industry, theft from academic journals is becoming increasingly common. The Chinese institutions and the government itself is also accused of stealing IP, with US firms generally quickest to publicise instances of theft, real or imagined. Astonishingly, 20% of the country’s GDP is thought to come from infringement of IP. While the WTO has recently ruled against China in an American brought complaint,  the ruling may do little to reduce breaches.

In any case, developing a knowledge economy is no guarantee that a country will cease to experience problems relating to IP theft. Canada and Chile, two countries with established knowledge economies, still have infringement problems and remain on the US government’s IPR watchlists. In some cases a developed knowledge economy simply serves to encourage theft. Singapore’s hi-tech economy and wide internet access has given it the highest per capita piracy rate in Asia. Tech savvy Japanese citizens are still happy to utilise their country’s peerless download speeds to violate IP despite risking a seven year prison sentence if convicted of theft.

Chinese cultural traditions may also cause infringement to continue. Traditional Confucian beliefs emphasise reciting, copying and following role models, contrasting with the western aesthetical tradition with its tendency to fetishise the innovative and deliberately different. Older generations in particular will have received grounding in Marxist theory and in many cases may be horrified by the idea of essential knowledge being made un-available to those who cannot afford it. Given the current censorious and authoritarian nature of the Chinese Communist party, many pirates may also feel morally justified in illegally accessing material banned by the communist party, such as information relating to the illegal Falun Gong movement.

Yet China is increasingly valuing IP. Chinese companies now sue one another for copyright abuse. Major Chinese companies such as Taobao, China’s eBay, and search engines Sogou and Baidu have taken steps to reduce infringement and have been removed from the US Notorious Markets list. With the country still pursuing a protectionist economic outlook, an appetite exists for prosecuting foreign firms, with the likes of Apple being readily accused by Chinese authorities of e-book piracy.

Greater technological capabilities may increase government’s ability to censor file sharing sites, eliminate anonymous internet access and update The Great Firewall of China, with China’s digital bastion against ‘inappropriate’ online material already blocking many pirating sites. China’s legal system and lack of democratic institutions could work in harmony with technological innovation, allowing for strict anti-piracy laws to be legislated and enforced. The country’s neighbours, Japan and South Korea, have seen large falls in infringement following the introduction of tighter legal penalties and better monitoring technology.

Economic growth generated from a knowledge economy may also reduce infringement. China’s huge state run publishing houses have begun the process of merging – like their western counterparts. These mergers, when combined with the invested wealth of the increasingly rich Chinese state, may mean Chinese publishers have more resources to combat infringement than UK or US counterparts. With 40% of China’s internet users making ‘micropayments’ to read online fiction, the popularity of digital only ‘Phone novels’ in China and the rest of Asia, together with the obligations imposed on Chinese publishers to invest in technology as spelled out in the nation’s Five Year Plan, publishers may become increasingly motivated to invest in and protect digital markets.

With wealth, technology and the legal system on their side, China’s publishers have an opportunity to enforce copyright, particularly online. However, infringement is likely to remain a problem for logistic and cultural reasons. Should a knowledge economy fully emerge within the country, copyright enforcement may further tighten as China looks to more closely follow international law and reap the rewards of Chinese cultural and technological innovation.

James McCall is a part-time student on the Kingston University MA Publishing course. 

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