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China And The Pirates

In the current issue, the filmmaker Jia Zhang Ke writes about how China's rampant DVD piracy has created a class of street vendors operating...

In the current issue, the filmmaker Jia Zhang Ke writes about how China's rampant DVD piracy has created a class of street vendors operating suitcase cinematheques, their tables overflowing with Hollywood blockbusters placed willy nilly next to arthouse obscurities and Asian hits. There's very little sense of curation: if it's been released somewhere, the Chinese will bootleg it (researching this phenomenon in Shanghai, in and among Pirates of the Caribbean and Mission: Impossible discs, we found illicit copies of the '60s avant-garde film Chappaqua, and The Brave, a little-seen film that Johnny Depp directed in 1997).

Understandably, Hollywood studios have spent a lot of time attempting to fight piracy, but the subject isn't quite so black and white. Because the Chinese government only allows 20 non-Chinese films a year to be exhibited in theaters, the black market provides a window onto the outside world that wouldn't otherwise be open; many Western stars are stars in China primarily because of piracy.

Last month, a Beijing DVD vendor was convicted and sent to prison for Intellectual Property Theft, the first retailer to be so punished. Such gestures may increase as the Olympics approach, but the true culprits who manufacture and distribute counterfeit DVDs, software, clothing and electronics will continue to evade prosecution-despite Government avowals in support of the Motion Picture Association and other IP watchdogs, a significant portion of the country's GDP comes from pirate goods, and in part the Chinese regard profiting this way as historical payback for their exploitation by the West in the late 19th and early 20th century.

An overview of piracy written by Anne Stevenson-Yang and Ken DeWoskin for the Far Eastern Economic Review, can be found here (.pdf). A contrarian take by Aaron Schwabach in the Journal of International Media and Entertainment Law, arguing that the problem has been overstated, can be found here.

Of course, the aura of romance, danger and adventure surrounding the notion of Chinese piracy dates back to the 1800s. Much of it can be found in Milton Caniff's groundbreaking 1930s newspaper comic "Terry and the Pirates," an adventure serial following a pair of American fortune hunters up and down the Chinese coast. Though marred by the kind of condescending Orientalism then prevalent, the comic is genuinely thrilling, beautiful to look at, and an obvious source for the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" series. IDW have recently published their third handsome volume of the complete strips.

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