Nov 15

Chinese Copyright Protection in the Age of Digital Books, Creative Commons, Remixes, and Mashups

Written by berlinf on Sunday, November 15th, 2009 at 6:48 pm
Filed under:-mini-posts, General |
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This may sound like a Dilbert kind of approach, but some problems are solved if you wait long enough. Copyright protection is certainly a case in point.

The United States has been a patient critic of Chinese copyright protection, but according to Wei Gu, columnist for Reuters, such calls for action has fallen on deaf ears (see: Copyright protection battle in China).   The hope is that Chinese government and individuals realize themselves the importance of protection for intellectual property.

That day may come sooner than expected.

There are at least two unexpected developments in this long battle:

The first can be summarized in a cliche:  What comes around goes around. Or a Chinese proverb: 三十年河东三十年河西 (Literally translated: For thirty years you are east of the river, for the next thirty years you may be at the west of the river). After years of development, Chinese companies such as Huawei have emerged as strong advocates for protection as they are finding violations against them.  

In addition, recently Chinese authors are calling Google “doing evil” as Google put many Chinese authors’ works in their digital library without asking for permission first.  When challenged, Google agreed to pay each author US$60 for each book scanned, provided they file an application to Google.   Chinese writers are saying that Google is treating them like beggars. You don’t call US$60 for a book protection if you make it widely available for people to download and read for free.   In addition,this shoot-first-apologize-later approach is rather unfair to the authors even if the money is fair. If your neighbor takes your Christmas lights and puts them on his tree, why would you need to file an application to ask him to give fair compensation? You call the police. This may be a bad analogy, but you get the idea.

Google may also make it more difficult to protect these authors’ rights within China as readers would not buy their books anymore.

Another interesting development, which may complicate the first one, is the change of paradigms on copyright protection.  In a recent keynote speech for the 2009 Educause Conference, Dr. Lessig, law professor from Harvard, called for a “war on copyright”.  In this speech, Dr. Lessig said he advocates a change in attitude towards copyright, as technology has made copyright an entirely different issue now. The 19th century business model, upon which old copyright laws are based, is not longer applicable in the age of digital books, remixes, and mashups. So far, people have been making accusations about copyright protection based on some questionable assumptions:

a) that protection is beneficial:  Sharing may sometimes be necessary or even beneficial.  The public should be able to access medical articles about such issues as infant jaundice. If these kind of research is done by a public university, there is even more necessity for sharing it as in many cases, public money is used to create such research in the first place. What happens is that the lines between corporate sponsorship and public research is blurred, the public pays for some of the research, but private companies (especially in the field of medicine) gets the patents and eventually the profit.

In addition, “protection” may not always be beneficial for the original owners of property rights when giving access to the public will benefit the original owners in terms of prestige, influence or even profit.  In this new game, sharing is the new protection. Dr. Lessig also said that old laws of protection actually stifle instead of promote creativity, especially in educational settings.

Now back to the Google vs. Chinese writers case, I guess that Google may rightly make an argument that the sharing and digitization could benefit the writers (this may be music to the ears of those who think Chinese literature is crap). But the principle of reciprocity should apply here. Would American authors be happy if Baidu puts their works in their database by saying that Chinese readers do not even know much about some of them?

b) that laws are sound:  Dr. Lessig pointed out that the public give undue reverence to such laws.  While he said he would not go to the extreme of copyright abolitionism, he said at least the laws should be revised to address the dynamic changes brought about by technology.

c) That all rights should be reserved for the owners:  the Creative Commons movement has successfully challenged this paradigm by proposing a “some rights reserved” model for intellectual products.   If done well, this could actually benefit the original owners of intellectual property rights as discussed above.

Intellectual property right protection may be one of the issues on Mr. Obama’s plate in his recent visit to China. Given these changes described above, I hope that the US and China will reframe the dialogue about copyright protection to factor in the role of technology. You cannot engage in the same kind of dialogue if the game rules have subtly yet fundamentally changed.

Of course these few thoughts hardly do justice to the title of this post. This is meant to be a start not a summary of discussions. Your thoughts on the issue?

Below is a video from Dr. Lessig’s keynote speech at the 2009 Educause Conference:
Lawrence Lessig

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4 Responses to “Chinese Copyright Protection in the Age of Digital Books, Creative Commons, Remixes, and Mashups”

  1. Uln Says:

    2 comments on this interesting subject:

    1- Being realistic, the Chinese writers have really nothing to lose with this, because the situation is already at ground-zero before Google arrived. Any popular piece of literature is copied immediately by the pirates, online and offline, and people buy new books on the sidewalk stands for 10RMB, without giving a cent to the author. In my opinion, from this situation it can not possibly go down further, but only up. We have to look at the positive point of how this conflict is going to promote consciousness of IP in China. And if the government gets involved it is even better, because this will set a precedent of government properly defending IP that can be used in the future.

    2- I am not following this very closely but I am pretty sure that Google had a similar problem with American authors (or their publishers) who hadnt granted permission to publish sections of their books on Google Books. And I think the only reason why Google has continued to digitize copyrighted material is because they are basically ignoring the authros/publishers, and they still have that lawsuit pending. Anyone knows the situation today?

  2. Allen Says:

    The video from Prof. Lessig is good. Very good. (He’s a Harvard professor now, by the way).

    However, we need to take note what the video is about – it’s talking about what policy we ought to have to incentive creative innovations – and how copyright may impede or incentivize – depending on the circumstances – in the U.S.

    The issue between China and U.S. is very different. Who cares how China incentivize innovations (do you care about how much tax China collects from artists in China?)? The U.S. cares only because the U.S. stands to make more money if China adopts U.S. system of copyright than not – at least for now. So this is a trade issue – not much different than the tire issue, or chicken issue …

  3. dewang Says:

    Interesting article, Berlin. My take away is this general idea we need to think “outside the box” because technology fundamentally changes the game – and often. Looking at the world simply from the established ways of the past some times is not helpful in coming up with the right solution for the future.

    Couple of examples:
    The music industry in the U.S. wishing to view the world strictly in their established ways without considering Itunes had their world changed on them by force.

    Video game’s business model in China is completely different than that of traditional CD based / per copy as established in developed countries. There was massive efforts in publishers to do “copy protection” on CD’s but they were basically ineffective.

    In our interview, Robert Compton also mentioned that BYD was able to make a pure electric car “unencumbered by combustion engine mindset of Detroit.”

  4. r v Says:

    Fundamentally, Chinese traditional view of IP is completely different from the Western view.

    There is a Chinese saying, “the whole world is one big copying.”

    This reflects the Chinese view that all ideas are essentially based upon other ideas, and as such, there is no such thing as individual ownership of ideas. Afterall, how does one own an idea that was 99% based upon other people’s ideas.

    The Western solution is to offer limited period protection for ideas and expressions.

    But that’s not much different from a Medieval form patron sponsorship of artists and inventors.

    *But really, I think there are substantial problems with the current Western form of IP protection.

    For example, vast majority of Patents, at least the really important and useful ones, are owned by corporations. Inventors rarely see any benefits from their inventions. Does that patent system then really promote inventions, or merely corporate landgrabbing in patents?

    Incidentally, many corporations file patents, not to use the inventions, but rather to prevent others from using the inventions. For example, if company A is a large computer maker, it pumps $billions to develop all sort of inventions, but use only 10% of it, and prevent the other inventions from coming into the market to decrease competing technologies.

    1 problem here with Western IP protection systems is the overemphasis on individual achievement, and the simplified commoditization of individual achievement.

    Is all the creativity going into the mere patents themselves, or does it take much more creativity and much more TEAM work to actually make the inventions into useful products?

    To me, the emphasis of copyrights and patents is incentivitizing the wrong thing in societies. It allows individuals who talk emptily collect greatly, while those who work and make dreams come true are not rewarded. It allows large companies to buy off dreams easily and kill the dreams before they happen.

    These things should not be allowed to happen.

    Ideas and expressions are stuff of dreams, they are both worth nothing until happens, and worth everything that cannot be valued.

    *China should take heed the lessons learned from Western IP systems, and strike out its own IP protection regime with trial and error, with more freedom to copy and improve, more reward for those who make ideas come true, for the benefit of all people.

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