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.]