July 3 2006
The International Federation for the Phonographic Industry, an organization with an antiquated name at the very least, has announced that it will file suit against Yahoo! China for copyright infringement under a new law that came into effect in China this weekend. The Federation says that around 90% of all music sold in China is pirated and Yahoo! China includes links to unaffiliated sites selling pirated music. The whole thing leaves a terrible taste in my mouth.
When Yahoo! handed over information on a number of dissidents and reporters to the Chinese government, it said it was just following local laws. Those individuals faced serious consequences. If international pressure is able to change Chinese law, those are the laws that should have been changed - not laws seeking to enforce a false scarcity over an ephemeral product like digital music.
When Google lost its appeal in a French court last week and was ruled guilty for including search results for counterfeit Louis Vuitton hand bags, most international observers thought it indicated an unrealistic and anti-American sentiment in France. For some reason intellectual property infringement in music is taken far more seriously. I hope people will think about the international politics at issue in the Yahoo! China case as well.
Specifically, it indicates a serious misplacement of priorities by US influence wielders. Trying to change 90% of any practice seems like tilting at windmills to me, so I have a hard time believing that pressuring China to stop persecuting electronic dissidents isn’t happening because it’s unrealistic. I think we all know why there aren’t serious resources invested in such a campaign - but I don’t know how much profit there was to be made in challenging apartheid South Africa, either.
Estimating damages from such practices in the developing world seems unrealistic, as it’s hard to imagine that most pirated goods would be bought at full market value if pirated alternatives were unavailable. Having read about highly militarized raids on the producers of pirated movies in the developing world, tying this case into larger questions of IP law like drug patents (lobbyists tie them together) and thinking about that number - 90% - really makes me think that some other business model other than scarcity has got to emerge around fluid commodities like digital music. For a good read on these topics, I recommend Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy.
Of all the laws to change in China, what a shame this is the one that international influence worked its power on. What will Yahoo! Music do? They weren’t willing to challenge Chinese law on human rights, will they do so when it comes to search results and listings? If it makes sense for Yahoo! to change their practices in China, does it make sense for Google to change its practices in France? What does this mean for search?