Thursday, December 09, 2004

Clinton quotes Mao

Collin Levey writes in Tech Central Station, with relish, of how Bill Clinton’s memoir, My Life, is being madly pirated all over Asia. (Someone tried to sell me a copy at a traffic signal at Worli a few hours ago, for Rs 175 – apprx. US$ 3.) But what delights Levey is not the piracy itself, but the manner in which it is being done.

“[T]he chronic misspellings, cheap materials and smudgy ink that mark the knock-offs commonly found in Asia are the least of the problem,” he writes. “Mr. Clinton's carefully chosen words have been murdered by additions and deletions wholly out of keeping with the original. Copies available in China have Mr. Clinton serially quoting Mao and extolling the feng shui of his hometown in Arkansas.”

So why does this give Levey any pleasure? Because it is “so redolent of the policies Mr. Clinton himself has supported in another arena of great demand and Western prices. That is, knockoff drugs to fight AIDS.”

Clinton’s Presidential Foundation, says Levey, is “a leading supporter of the use of knock-off pills, produced without permission or supervision by generics manufacturers in countries that do not recognize international patent rights. The companies, most notably Cipla and Ranbaxy in India, have long been favorites of the AIDS activist community because they pilfer technologies developed at huge cost by large Western research-based drugs firms.”

Clinton, thus, is “getting a taste of his own medicine”. The analogy breaks down, in my view, at one point. The transgressions of international patent rights that Clinton’s foundation is encouraging are for the purpose of saving lives, and the more this piracy succeeds, the more lives will be saved. Clinton’s foundation does not actually make any money from this (though Cipla and Ranbaxy do). The pirate publishers who are ripping off Clinton, on the other hand, are not exactly saving any lives.

I quite agree with Levey that intellectual property rights must be protected, but that needs to be done in a realistic manner. As a kid and a teenager, growing up here (in India) in the 1980s and ‘90s, I was a regular customer of pirated music. The reason for that was simple: all the music I enjoyed listening to, from much of Van Morrison’s catalogue to the Allman Brothers Band to REM to Television was not available here. The only way I could get hold of all the music that I loved, which was such a big part of my life then, was to get pirated copies of it, or to record it off friends. If the music I wanted was available in the market at a reasonable price, I would have no compunctions buying legit copies. (Luckily, things have changed here due to the liberalisation of the ‘90s.)

Levey, in his piece, points out that “more than 90% of students [in China] see no problem with buying the grey market versions [of textbooks]”. And why should they? If the pirated textbooks weren’t there, they would have no access at all to that learning. Patricia Schroeder, the president of the Association of American Publishers, was quoted by the Chronicle as saying, "Countries say to us: 'We really want education for our kids. You people [in the United States] are rich. Why do you want to stop us from copying textbooks?'"

Third-world pirates, it must be understood, often function in a vacuum. They fulfil a need that no one else is satisfying. If copyright and patent holders balk at this, there is only one way to stop it – to fulfil that need themselves. And they cannot do this by pricing their goods at the same price as they do in the developed world, for no one will be able to afford them. Just as American employers pay their staff differently according to their location, using different standards of living as a justification, they must also price products differently. This is already the case with many products here – books are marked down, in absolute terms, for the Indian market, though not enough.

This is not a moral issue, but a practical one – if producers do not follow differential pricing, they will never be able to stop third-world pirates. And if they do, they will benefit from a market they weren’t tapping earlier, or were tapping ineffectively.

And Clinton won’t be quoting Mao any more.

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