China is in the middle of another of its periodic crackdowns against piracy, which so far has seen all foreign television programmes and films stripped off internet video sharing sites, but which has not extended to shutting down Shanghai’s network of dodgy DVD shops. Now the authorities are allegedly planning to comb through the offices of government departments and state-owned enterprises and check to make sure they are all running legitimate software – although I can’t even imagine that they really are going to license every copy of Windows, given how much that would cost.
It is all good old face-saving so that officials can answer irate foreign companies with a straight face that they are doing everything in their power to stop intellectual property infringement. Anyone who lives in China, however, knows this is nonsense. The problem, at its root, is that the Chinese have a fundamentally different view about intellectual property rights.
After 5,000 years of civilisation, the Chinese believe there is nothing new under the sun. Every idea has been thought of by someone beforehand. So they don’t attach much importance to protecting ideas. Instead, spreading them around is for the common good.
Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the comments of Yang Xueshan, the vice minister of the ministry of Industry and Information Technology, yesterday. Right in the middle of the current crackdown, Mr Yang warned that it was important to “protect” and “recognize” the “innovative elements in knock-offs”.
According to Xinhua, Mr Yang “noted that knockoffs are part of the notion of intellectual property rights. However he argued both the interests of intellectual property right owners and consumers of copycat products should be considered”. (Is this the first time that China puts consumers first?)
“He stressed the key question is how to identify the intellectual property included in a copycat product. It is not far to label a knockoff product as an intellectual property poacher without doing that. [Knockoffs] should be encouraged because they are also making innovations.”
Well, there you have it. No less than the MIIT muddying the waters, proposing an incredibly complicated system by which knockoff producers would pay a share of their profits to the owners of the original intellectual property rights, and effectively signalling that nothing is likely to change in China for the foreseeable future. After all, the main thing that counts is the “benefit of society”, or in other words, the right of Chinese companies to keep pirating goods and reverse-engineering Western products.