A Country a Week: China, Part 1

Copyright protection is a critical part of maintaining and promoting a creative culture. It boosts the economy by protecting authors and creators and supporting cultural works. It is a common idea in most of the world, but China has lagged behind in adopting a copyright law. This paper will give a brief history of intellectual property laws in China, explain the current state of Chinese copyright law and form conjectures about what steps are next.

The earliest form of regulation began in A.D. 835 with a doctrine that denied anyone but the emperor from producing calendars and almanacs. The reasoning was that the emperor was the only one who could foresee natural events and any attempt outside of his jurisdiction would undermine his power. During the Tang Dynasty, from A.D. 618-907, the first rewriting of the original doctrine was undertaken. It added to the outlawed works official histories and works on Buddhism and Daoism among others. Between A.D. 960-1279, the Song Dynasty rulers amended the laws again and required a copyright registration. All works printed would have to be submitted to local officials first, to regulate the ideas being spread. The first copyright laws and protection were mostly intended to protect the government and allow political leaders to control the dissemination of information. This form of central government prevented intellectual property rights from appearing organically in China and made it difficult for them to be implemented there later on.

In the 1840s, China opened its ports to welcome foreign trade. Because most items were bought in bulk from other countries, foreigners had no problems with the lack of intellectual property rights. As trade expanded however, piracy became an increasing problem. Copying others’ works was not seen as a legal wrong until the idea was introduced by foreign importers.

In 1903, the United States convinced China to sign a treaty providing for the protection of American copyrights, patents and trademarks. China agreed readily but because it did not have an infrastructure involved in monitoring this, piracy remained rampant. The United States was unable at this time to convince Chinese politicians that protecting individuals rights to their creative and scientific works would be a boon to the economy. Soon after, China’s Qing Dynasty fell and the country became ravaged with wars and revolutions. Intellectual property rights were the least of the country’s worries and wouldn’t take the front seat again until the late 1970s.

During the cultural revolution that took place from 1966 until 1976, piracy was commonplace. The government had taken over any private works and published them at will, considering them to be owned by the government. There was no regard paid to the authors of creative endeavors. This continued until President Deng Xiaoping came into power. He recognized the utility of copyrights and their power to encourage economic growth as well as enrich society with creative stimulation. It was also necessary in order to attract foreign investors and allow foreign trade to continue.

In 1979, China signed the Agreement on Trade Relations Between the United States of America and the PRC, in an attempt to further ensure that American copyright owners were being sufficiently looked after in the Chinese market. This was the first step, but it was far from perfect. “Then, in 1990, after a decade of intense internal debate over the appropriateness of intellectual property in a socialist system, the National People’s Congress promulgated the PRC’s first copyright law.

The 1990 Copyright Law skirted the line between protecting the personal rights of the copyright holder and the socialist belief in the rights of the public. There were many allowances put in this version for the government to use works in television shows and on the radio, free of charge. It also refused to protect any works that the government deemed to be non-conformist. But it finally made copyright infringement illegal and provided for remedies. China continued to be unable to enforce these laws however and piracy remained prevalent.

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