Yes, Virginia, there is Piracy

06 July 2009

Andrew Rens’ blog, Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi has a post today on “Piracy in Africa,” which deplores the North/South battle where the North (developed countries with large intellectual property industries) encourages the South (Africa) to prevent copyright infringement by increasing copyright enforcement.

While I agree with the author’s point that African countries should not be forced to use their limited resources to get already over-bloated (and in my opinion rather useless) foreign industries, I also believe that the post deserves some criticism.  I encourage you to check out his post; it has some good points, and it’s only fair that you see his whole side rather than just the pieces I pick at.

Piracy, there are many who have taken issue with using this term in regards to copyright infringement.  Rens briefly alludes to this at the end of his post.  In terms of the few examples of infringement mentioned by him: downloading music, copying CDs or DVDs for personal use, using a copied version of Windows, I agree, this is not piracy.  However, Africa does have levels of copyright infringement than can legitimately be called piracy.  In Nigeria, for example, huge optical disc plants churn out incredible numbers of unauthorized copies of CDs, DVDs and VCDs.  The quantities of unauthorized copies can far out-number the amount of authorized copies on the market.  These optical disc plants do this solely for the sake of profit, often times delivering less than quality goods.  This is piracy.

It is these infringing materials that prevent the real threat to copyright in Africa, not downloads (a developed-country problem).  These types of infringing materials do not hurt the “large monopolies” Rens fingers as the supposed beneficiaries of tighter enforcement laws.  These infringing materials are very often unauthorized copies of local artists’ works.  These infringing materials hurt the local industries, the barely-bourgeoning, attempting to grow, potential industries.

Rens also says, “The 547 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa without electricity (World Bank) have no use  for CDs and DVDs.”  For a statement from someone living in Africa, this really surprised me.  Any African knows that you do not need electricity to have use for such things.  There are always work-arounds; things like small generators and car batteries.  I have seen mud huts with satellite dishes, thatched roofs with antennas reaching to the sky, for the battery powered television far down below.  The biggest problem with DVDs and CDs is not the lack of electricity, but how easily they get scratched.  But for that, there’s cassette tapes, which can also easily be reproduced.

In terms of the developed world pushing down on developing countries to enact stricter copyright laws, to spend more on enforcement, and to protect these foreign rights, Rens is correct, there are “high barriers to joining the Information Society” and they do “require us to critically examine” attempts to “impose greater barriers to access to knowledge.”  But, these laws also play an important role in local economies, for the benefit of the local people.  We cannot overlook this.

[I have completely ignored the other aspect of benefits that come with strengthening IP laws, which is of course encouraging foreign investment, in order to focus on the purely domestic aspects.  I’d be happy to explore the other side more if anyone should be interested in discussing it.]


4 Responses to “Yes, Virginia, there is Piracy”
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Nick Miller said...

Very thought-provoking blog entry. With regard to foreign investment, wouldn't the opportunities be somewhat limited? Given the political instability of many African nations it seems that positive IP laws that are put into effect may be null and void in a short matter of time if there is regime change or upheaval. In this instance it seems that the black market might operate more efficiently as is without enforcing stricter IP laws.

I could see the efficacy of creating a "super IP state" with rigid laws that might become a haven of pharma development or other technological innovation that might service many neighboring nations. I'm not up on how well these laws would translate across the continent though and which treaties are in place to protect these rights once one crosses a border. I wonder if any of these markets have enough consumers to warrant such an investment.

July 7, 2009 at 7:21:00 PM PDT

Thank you for commenting on my blogpost. I've sketched e a couple of points where you seem to have misunderstood what I was saying in the comments section of that post.
In your post you say that: "However, Africa does have levels of copyright infringement than can legitimately be called piracy."
The use of the term piracy to refer to any type of infringement is polemical as I explain in a new post on my blog:

July 8, 2009 at 2:05:00 AM PDT
goldenrail said...

Nick, some countries in Africa are politically unstable (ok, maybe even most around election times), but companies usually check that out first. If they need to. In some cases, a company is just interested in selling their products in a country. Political stability is still important, but a little less so then.

In any case, whether wanting to introduce their products, or open an R&D plant, they're going to want to know that there is at least some security for their valuable assets. Trademark protection that will prevent others from selling sub-par knock-offs as their own and tarnishing their brand image. Patent laws that will protect them against others taking their new developments. And, probably less frequently, copyright laws to protect their published work (I am including recordings and such as 'published').

I'm not sure I'm following you on the 'super IP state'. I'd love to hear the idea hashed out more, if you have time. (Maybe even for noESQueses.)

ex Africa, thanks for stopping by and being willing to engage in a little discussion. I'll be sure to check out your new related post as well. I added a few responses to your original post.

July 8, 2009 at 9:34:00 PM PDT
Clark said...

very interesting article article...enjoyed reading it

January 10, 2011 at 7:19:00 PM PST