From the Pirate Booksellers of Chungking Street to Taiwan Today (Taiwan Blog #1)

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Taiwan, 23 million people, lives in the shadow of its huge cousin on the mainland, China (the Peoples’ Republic), population 1.3 billion…more or less. In many ways Taiwan years ago was a microcosm of what China is today, and is today what China may one day become. There are many elements to the complicated and complex Taiwan-China relationship, and copyright is just a tiny slice of that relationship. But it is illustrative.

Today China is a huge source of pirated content on the internet, as I noted in a recent blog. Back in the 1960s Taiwan was a hotbed of book piracy. In fact, it was the epicenter of a thriving trade in pirated works, ranging from the bestsellers of the day to medical and other expensive textbooks to the Encyclopedia Britannica. At Tan Chiang Book Company, on Chungking Road South in Taipei, full 24-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica retailed in those days at between $40 and $75, whereas the same sets would have cost $400 to $550 back in the US, depending on the quality of the binding. As reported in an article in the November 15, 1963 edition of Life Magazine written by Charles Elliott, “Taiwan’s Bestselling Pirates”, the technique was simple. A Taiwan bookseller/publisher would have a friend purchase a copy of a newly-released book in the US or elsewhere and send it to him via airmail. Once received, it was disassembled, photocopied page-by-page and then reproduced on an offset press, including, reportedly, a new German press purchased with US Government development assistance funds!

At that time the Kuomintang (KMT) regime on Taiwan was still recognized by most of the world as the legitimate government of China, even though it had retreated from the mainland in 1949 to what was then known as Formosa. But even though the KMT regime represented China at the United Nations and in most of the world’s capitals, China was not a signatory to any of the international copyright conventions. Thus it was perfectly legal under Chinese law to appropriate copyrighted material from abroad and reproduce it without payment to the author (much as US publishers did with the works of British authors such as Charles Dickens in the 19th Century). Only by obtaining a Chinese copyright registration, which was notoriously difficult to obtain, could a work be protected in Taiwan (eventually the Encyclopedia Britannica did just that). Not only were pirated Western works openly available on the streets of Taipei in book emporiums such as Tan Chiang, but enterprising students and others in the US regularly made it a practice to procure their textbooks from Taiwan, at a fraction of the US price, opening up a thriving “grey market”. This was well before the Internet had been conceived of, but catalogues mailed from Taiwan ensured that the wares were advertised in the US within knowledgeable circles.

Publishers were not amused. Representations were made to the US government, which was both Taiwan’s security guarantor as well as chief source of development assistance funds, to “do something”. According to Charles Elliott in his 1963 Life article, in the early 1960s the US started to lean on the KMT government of Chiang Kai-shek to stop undermining the US book market by forcing him to clamp down on book exports, even if the pirate publishers were allowed to remain in business in Taiwan. This was long before Congress had developed any formalized process such as Special 301, and the subtleties of Watch Lists, Priority Watch Lists and Priority Foreign Countries were unknown concepts. The word was simply passed that this had to stop, and the “ingenious band of rascals”, as Elliott described the Taiwanese book pirates, had to clip their wings.

Perhaps things tightened a bit, but when I first visited Taiwan in 1976, it was still a very good place to buy openly what were legal (according to Chinese domestic law) reprint editions of standard western works at bargain basement prices. By that time, the KMT regime on Taiwan had already been deprived of the China seat at the UN and many countries were shifting diplomatic recognition to Beijing. The US would do so on January 1, 1979. Over succeeding years, Taiwan lost most of its formal diplomatic connections, and was not able to sign or join international diplomatic conventions, on copyright or any other topic. The Peoples’ Republic of China (Beijing) finally acceded to the Berne Convention in 1992.

But Taiwan has changed. Beginning in the 1970s it began several decades of steady economic growth so that by 2016 it had one of the highest per capita GDP standards in Asia, ahead of South Korea and well ahead of China. This prosperity was based, particularly in later years, on technology and a high degree of innovation. Taiwan bills itself today an “Island of Innovation” and boasts of its achievements in semiconductors, medical technologies, sustainable energy and biotech. It also has a thriving copyright industry that, just in the area of film and television, contributed $5.5 billion (USD) to the Taiwanese economy, supporting almost 114,000 jobs. In terms of legal protection, although Taiwan is not able to sign Berne, it has signed a bilateral agreement with the United States to reciprocally protect copyright and is also a member of the WTO, which incorporates IPR obligations. Taiwan has gone from an IP pariah to an IP powerhouse, at least in relative terms. Once a perennial “favourite” on USTR’s IPR Watch List, Taiwan has not been mentioned for a number of years, and was not mentioned again in 2016. Gone are the booksellers on Chungking Street. Gone for the most part are the once ubiquitous pirate optical disk markets, and largely gone are the university copy shops (although book piracy has taken on new digital dimensions). Yet copyright challenges are emerging with changing technology, and Taiwan is once again in the crosshairs of the copyright industry.

The 2016 submission to USTR from the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) for the annual Special 301 review begins with, “Taiwan once stood as a model for strong intellectual property protection throughout Asia…(but)…unfortunately Taiwan’s progress on intellectual property rights protection stalled and, over the past several years, Taiwan has been moving away from policies that it once instituted to foster and reward creativity”. Strong words! Is Taiwan slipping back to the days of the “ingenious rascals” of Chungking Street and giving up the IP gains that it has made over the years? I had a golden opportunity to find out. As a former Executive Director of the Canada’s Representative Office in Taiwan (known officially as the Canadian Trade Office in Taipei), I was invited back to Taiwan in April to see how the island had changed since I had last lived there in the mid-1990s. The visit gave me the chance to meet and talk with a number of stakeholders dealing with intellectual property and other issues.

In my next blog I will share some observations on what is happening in Taiwan in the area of copyright protection, and discuss how these developments are playing out in a larger political and economic context of Taiwan’s relations with China.

© Hugh Stephens 2016. All Rights Reserved

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