Late last week, the New York Times ran an op-ed piece “Stealing Books for the Poor” by Yu Hua, the acclaimed author of China in Ten Words, To Live and many others.
In the piece, translated by Allan Barr, Yu Hua laments China’s piracy problem and the challenge it poses to him as an author. He begins with an overview of the depth and breadth of the problem including the reality that IP infringement can be a major source of revenue for Chinese localities. He goes on to suggest that the most basic reason for the piracy is the limited access to cultural goods China’s impoverished farmers and workers have due to their low income. Given their quality of living, escape through books and other cultural goods could be seen as a necessity. Within the context of a population earning $1 a day in a country where the cost of basic goods like food is rising everyday, the consumption of pirated goods would almost seem like a forgivable offense.
The notion that China’s poor, including rural poor, need access to pirated content in order to ensure that their economic and cultural development has some romantic appeal. China has a long tradition of farmer-poets: educated individuals, frequently ex officials, who self-impoverish themselves, farm and escape the political life. The title of Yu Hua’s editorial also suggests a clear linkage back to that tradition by referring to Lu Xun’s classic short story “Kong Yiji”, whose protagonist, a downtrodden Confucian scholar argues that “Taking a book is not stealing a book”, or as has been more impressionistically translated by Prof. William Alford of Harvard Law School: “To steal a book is an elegant offense.” However, unlike Yu Hua and others who look to sociological reasons for piracy, Lu Xun was being satirical.
China’s own data reveals, however, that piracy is a poor development strategy for China today. There are other ways of encouraging cultural and social progress in China, such as by the on-going efforts to develop rural education and rural libraries.
China’s own empirical studies show that neither farmers nor poor people in China are the principal consumers of pirated materials. According to the China National Reading Survey (2008), prepared by the China Institute of Publishing Sciences, one of the principal drivers of willingness to buy pirated books is youth. This should come as no surprise to any college student or their parents. In general, the purchase of pirated goods decreases dramatically with age:
The purchase of pirated goods is also vastly more common within the ranks of professionals than farmers:
There is also little to suggest that China’s poorest regions are the most significant manufacturers of infringing goods as is suggested by the author’s point that the poorer regions rely on piracy as a source of income. In fact, wealthier southern and central coastal regions likely have advantages in producing and distributing infringing products, as they are also associated with producing, distributing and exporting legitimate goods. Moreover, many of these coastal regions are responsible for a large part of China’s civil IPR docket, and large numbers of US-based IPR enforcement cases, such as “337” cases brought at our International Trade Commission. Here is what one tabulation of Chinese 337 respondents from several years ago looked like:
Piracy in China has always had a certain romantic appeal. In fact, piracy, as the distinguished and recently retired Prof. Hennessey of the University of New Hampshire notes, may equally be understood as social commentary and not as a development strategy. William Hennessey, Deconstructing Shanzhai – China’s Copycat Counterculture: Catch Me If You Can, 34 Campbell L. Rev. 609 (2012). To many authors who are dependent on royalty income, however, there is little romanticism to copyright infringement. Moreover, it can be particularly painful when even works on intellectual property are pirated in China – including by the state-sponsored procuratorate press, as was the case with the works of the late Prof. Zheng Chengsi.
Finally, the NY Times fact checkers should have caught several mistakes in this article regarding the structure of China’s IP enforcement environment. China’s judiciary is not responsible for its prison system – the Ministry of Justice does that. Local inter-agency cultural task forces handle copyright enforcement in most localities, not cultural bureaus. On-line enforcement involving copyright infringement can be handled by any number of agencies at a national level, including local agencies such as Beijing Copyright Bureau, which may be entrusted by national authorities. Copyright infringement of unapproved content can also be handled as a civil matter by the courts. Due to overlapping and limited copyright-related resources in China, picking the right agency to enforce can be a real problem for rights holders, and can be – as Yu Hua notes – a source of real frustration.