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: