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Resolving disputes in a rapidly transforming society

DVDs, free enterprise and that intellectual property rights thing

DVD seller's case
A battered suitcase and a cardboard box are the showroom floor for an illegal DVD seller on the streets of Beijing. (Connie Wu photo)

BEIJING — One of the many things that foreigners such as myself are tempted to buy in China is a cheap DVD. Real versions of Hollywood entertainment (or that of other nations) are almost impossible to find here, and legitimate movie theaters in China show just a few foreign films a year. Few options exist in terms of watching a legal version, so pirated movies dominate the home entertainment market. Therefore, bootleg DVDs are sold just about everywhere, in all manner of stores and on the streets.

It can be hard to remember that these DVDs are illegal, since just about everyone buys them. Strangely enough, while none of the DVD stores seems to get regulated, the street DVD sellers often face the long arm of the law.

Just the other day, I found myself on tiptoes, peering over the shoulders of a group of foreigners, who were browsing through pirated movies that a street DVD seller was offering from his dirty suitcase. After a month in China, it was hard not to be excited to see "Spiderman II," the latest Harry Potter installment, even Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 9/11." But two things stood in the way of my reaching into the suitcase and buying those discs: One was that the small crowd of foreigners had already claimed the last copy of Fahrenheit 9/11. The other was my conscience.

When the last foreigner left with her "Spiderman II" disc, I was left with only the unpopular movies. Well, that and Harry Potter. As I prepared to hand over 6 yuan (about 75 cents) for the young wizard's latest film, I couldn’t stop feeling bad about supporting this kind of business. It was weird because I have never really felt bad about buying these DVDs before. Two little voices debated in the back of my head.

J.K. Rowling and Hollywood can live without a few dollars, right? one voice argued, giving me the perfect excuse to buy.

No, no, no, I shouldn’t, the other little voice answered back. Honoring the intellectual property rights thing. The city should seriously crack down on this.

Well, if China honored intellectual property rights, then there wouldn’t be a whole lot of entertainment around, would there? First of all, there isn’t any real stuff around. Even if there was, how could the average Chinese afford to pay 80 yuan (approximately $10) every time they want to see a movie? Besides, how could China develop so quickly without pirated software and technology?

Hold on a second, piracy hurts American industries, and, well, the world economy!

Oh shut up. Look, its very simple, piracy helps China grow, and a growing China is good business for America …and, yes, for the world economy as well.

Whatever. China may need pirated technology to develop, but in the long run, copyright infringement will discourage even China’s own people from being creative and innovative.

Fine. But it's not like copyright infringement doesn’t exist in the United States. It's only a little different. I mean, how many people have you heard of who share movie files over the Internet?

A lot.

Uh-huh. And those movies are FREE. See?

“Neng fu qian le ma (Are you ready to pay)!?!" asked the impatient seller.

“Uh, deng deng (hold on)," I answered.

Just buy the damn thing.

Nah … I can’t do this to Harry Potter.

Fine, let’s settle for a Korean film then. I know you want to watch something and you aren't going to find real versions anyway.


As I was about to put down Harry Potter for a Korean flick, the DVD seller suddenly grabbed his suitcase and sprinted away. Yikes, the street patrol is coming! And I still have Harry Potter in my hands!

Run after him!

So, I ran after him. But he was too fast for me, even with his suitcase.

The piracy-control patrolman was a large man who strolled slowly down the street, peering into crowds, narrow lanes, and every nook and cranny looking for illegal activities. As I turned around to hide my Harry Potter, I found another group of illegal sellers carrying on business as usual, coolly unconcerned. Wait a minute, what’s up with this? Why aren’t they running? I was so puzzled, so I asked one of them, “Aren’t you afraid of the patrolman?”

“No, he is only responsible for that section of the block, not this section” the seller calmly answered.

“Whoa, you recognize the person who patrols your section?”

“Kind of…”

“So you're saying that even if that man sees you guys selling DVDs, he won’t do anything?”

“That’s right.”

As I walked home with my free copy of Harry Potter, I thought about the dilemma over intellectual property rights in China. On one hand, China faces immense pressure to crack down on copyright infringement, but on the other, copyrighted goods like movies or software are much too costly for the average Chinese person or start-up company to afford. Embedded in China’s rapid modernization seems to be the need to depend on cheaper versions of software to construct all those high-rises, and the need to expose the people to ideas of modernity, images of other cultures and lifestyles through movies.

Yet such need comes at a big cost to the original developers and also discourages others from being original. While regulation does exist to protect intellectual property rights in China, it seems to be rather inconsistent and ineffective. My experiences with the DVD sellers in Beijing reflect only a small part of the complexity and the dilemma over piracy in China.