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September 28, 2006

Piracy is killing creators in the developing world: Burma

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It's true that piracy has a major harmful impact on the creative industries in the United States and Europe, but it's helpful to be reminded that piracy has perhaps an even more harmful impact in developing countries.

We don't downplay the impact of piracy on the U.S. and Europe; in fact, we're actively engaged in quantifying exactly how harmful this piracy is.

But piracy in the developing world can literally kill the creation and distribution of creative work. And no, the Creative Commons isn't the solution.

Here's a story from Burma, where creators are literally stopping creating. Domestic film production is dropping off, as is the recording and distribution of domestic Burmese music.

This is an Associated Press story from August 28, 2006. I reproduce it here in case the link goes down:

August 28: One of Burma’s most famous singers sees no point in producing a new album, and an accomplished movie director says it’s nearly impossible to put together financing for a film.

Such complaints are typical by Burma’s artists, who in addition to struggling against the military government’s tough rules, now face a threat to their livelihood in the thriving outdoor markets on Rangoon’s streets. In the makeshift stalls, plastic bins hold hundreds of pirated copies of locally produced movies, CDs and music videos-everything from Burmese rap and pop to comedies.

Customers get a choice. Legitimate DVDs and CDs displayed on rickety tables are priced at around 2,000 kyat (US $1.50), while pirated copies below the tables go for as low as 400 kyat ($0.30). Performers and producers say the stream of cheap, pirated performances-only interrupted by the occasional police crackdown-means artists earn no money.

“No one bothers to go to cinema halls,” complained San Shwe Maung, a director and producer who said that counterfeit versions of local films are hurting the domestic movie industry. “Without piracy we would get a portion of each sale, but because of the piracy we don’t get anything,” he told the Associated Press.

Producers’ frustration with piracy has led to a steady decline in film production, San Shwe Maung and others said. A half-dozen films have come out in the first six months of 2006, making it unlikely the annual production will match the 27 films produced in 2004, he said.

Few artists in Burma concern themselves with the losses that piracy inflicts on the big players like Hollywood and Microsoft. The struggling artists here are focused on the domestic ramifications and say the absence of intellectual property rights protection is slowly suffocating them.

“At the present … we only have a handful of albums released,” said Nwe Yin Win, one of the country’s most popular singers who has done everything from Willie Nelson covers to Burmese hip-hop. “Even I don’t dare to bring one out.”

“These pirates are doing better than the producers,” said Nwe Yin Win, best known by her stage name, Aunty Joyce. “I know certain producers who have changed their profession.”

Hip-hop artist Tha Soe said he’s given up trying to earn money from his music.

“I have six to eight CDs ready for production,” he recently told the Burmese-language Kumudra news weekly. “But I’ve decided not to do it for fear they’ll fall into the hands of pirates. I’ll put my songs on the Internet free of charge.”

It is illegal to make, sell and buy pirated goods in Burma. But legislation on copyright is a mishmash of laws, some dating back to Britain’s colonial rule. Experts say the laws need to be overhauled and modernized.

Those who work with the government concede that existing enforcement does little to stop criminals from producing illegal CDs and DVDs.

“They pirate the product within hours, as soon as it comes out,” said Myo Thant, an anti-piracy advocate and adviser on copyright issues to the Ministry of Information.

In November, the World Trade Organization delayed a new regulatory framework for the least developed nations which need protection for trademarks, copyright, patents and other intellectual property. The implementation of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement, known as TRIPS, was put off from 2006 until 2013.

It is now unclear if reforms will come anytime soon.

“I don’t know exactly when we will begin to implement these laws,” said Moe Moe Thwe, deputy director of the Ministry of Science and Technology, the agency responsible for overseeing the country’s new intellectual property laws.

Moe Moe Thwe said the central government has not given a timeline for their implementation.

One vendor on a crowded street said he had no option but to sell pirated movies. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being arrested, said he plays cat and mouse with police at least twice a week but continues selling pirated DVDs because the 10,000 kyat ($13) he earns a day is the “only way of earning money for my family.”

Soaring unemployment is just one of the common complaints in Burma, where the average income is about $1,700 a year. Citizens are struggling to cope with inflation, frequent electricity blackouts and a military government that continues to defy international pressure for democratic reforms.

Hla Htay, owner of Master Recording & Video Production, said music producers like himself want tougher regulations that will stop piracy from eating away at their profits. But Hla Htay, who produces about 10 of the 100 music and karaoke videos that Burma puts out yearly, said the producers had little real hope the rampant piracy will end soon.

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