I no longer charge for any of my printed or recorded music, nor require royalties for any music performed. My experience in China has dramatically altered my concept of Intellectual Property.
In China, protection of intellectual property (IP) has two faces: the government’s compliance with Western laws and organizations, and minimal enforcement of the existing laws and regulations. The first face is thoroughly discussed elsewhere (for example, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectual_property_in_the_People's_Republic_of_China ); I wish to address a unique aspect of the second face.
Should IP be protected? For most Westerners, this is not even an issue, but the battle of pro and con is not new; international organizations exist to challenge both sides of this issue. The political and economic arguments for and against IP protection are discussed elsewhere (for example, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_intellectual_property, http://www.mondaq.com/article.asp?articleid=74520, and http://www.routledge.com/books/Intellectual-Property-Rights-in-China-isbn9780415364966).
The Chinese government seems to endorse the right of protection; why then is China arguably the worst enforcer of the laws? After spending time in China, I have come to understand how the concept of intellectual property rights and copyright is just a myth.
The most difficult concept for Americans to grasp about China is that it is possible for an entire nation of people to collectively believe in taking care of each other. This is in marked contrast to the collective American concept of “rugged individualism.” These are generalized concepts, as there are individuals and clusters of Americans who share the Chinese concept, and there are individuals and clusters of Chinese who espouse the social independence so characteristic of the States. This is not just a political distinction; it permeates all aspects of the cultures, from the way they eat and drive to the way they run schools and health care facilities.
If you hammer the nails to build a house or push the broom to sweep a street, you are paid for your labor. There are no additional royalties when the people move in or when they walk on the clean street. Similarly, when I compose a piece of music or make a recording, it is reasonable that I am paid for the time I worked. I do not “own” the music any more than the carpenter owns the well-built house or the sweeper owns the clean street. The “intellectual property” does not belong to me; it belongs to humanity. I believe that this interpretation of IP rights reflects the Chinese cultural interpretation, based upon the Chinese cultural premise that we all take care of each other.
The cost of living in China is about one tenth that of the U.S. This means that most things in the U.S. that cost $10.00, in China costs $1.00. This includes food, clothing, and local transportation. (City buses typically cost one Yuan, or about fifteen cents.) This also means that for someone in China to buy Windows Xp at Western prices, they would spend about 800 Yuan. If it were adjusted for cost of living, the Chinese price should be 80 Yuan. Pirated versions go for anywhere from 10 Yuan to 50 Yuan. For the modern Chinese, who consider computers as essential, 800 Yuan is prohibitive; 80 Yuan is reasonable enough that I believe they would prefer a licensed version to a pirated version. Intuit’s Quicken knew that lesson well; it is the least pirated major software, simply because it has always been priced low enough to discourage the attraction of pirated versions. Were Microsoft (and other companies) willing to make this adjustment, software piracy would virtually disappear. Meanwhile, for a culture in which IP is perceived to belong to all, there is little problem with conscience for the Chinese people when they utilize IP for their personal use. (To cite the price in U.S. terms, asking Chinese people to buy Windows Xp at Western pricing would be comparable to Microsoft asking Americans to buy it for $800.00!)
Yes, there are exceptions and there are problems. But remember that China is a young country, having celebrated its 63nd year on October 1st. What is wonderful about our (I mean China’s) government system is that it can act quickly and decisively to provide for its People. Within six months of the melamine milk scandal, China established its equivalent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; the U.S. is still haggling over basic health care. With limited privatization comes the need for added responsibilities of regulation from the central government, and the Chinese government does not hesitate to respond. But the seeming lack of regulation, so commonly criticized by the American government, is because the Chinese government will trust local autonomy unless and until it has reason not to. It is ironic that the biggest verbal complaint from America’s conservative Republicans is that there is too much central government, yet they are the first to voice complaints of China’s lack of regulations over its industries.
I am hopeful that, by having signed on to the international (“Western”) accords regarding intellectual property, China’s voice may be heard as It helps the rest of the world discover the fallacies of IP protection and move to collectively make the world a better, more humane place.
Although my work is technically not public domain as described at http://creativecommons.org/, any work by me may be used personally and commercially, royalty-free, provided that appropriate credit is given to the authorship ("Music/text/artwork is a creation of Don "Orfeo" Rechtman") and to the source (www.OrfeoMusic.org).
Written May 2010; updated December 2012
Send mail to Don@OrfeoMusic.org with questions or comments about this web site.