With all the fuss about patents right now, many have spoken out about the broken system that is in dire need of reform. Some are even saying that software patents should be abolished. I can’t define my exact stance on the matter, but in general, I want to tell Americans that they have it better than they think when it comes to patents.
My wife and I lived in Thailand a few years back and got to be there for long enough to learn some of the cultural patterns, buying behaviors and business practices of Thais in Bangkok. In a city with 10 million people, they have really figured out urban life. Few people have cars, most don’t have any sort of kitchen and buy all of their food from street vendors and shops, and there are markets everywhere. The strange thing about the markets is that there are plenty of no-name, homemade clothes and products, and there is an equal portion of knock offs, rip offs, copies, generics, imitations, and downright forgeries. You can buy Gucci, Rolex, Louis Vitton, Chanel, Nike, and almost any other premium brand but somehow not pay the premium price.
One night, on our way to the sky train, my wife and I were perusing the wares of street vendors who laid out their blankets of merchandise directly under signs that read in English and Thai, “No selling in this area.” As we walked through the maze of Hello Kitty socks, we spotted a police officer. He was also casually looking over the products to see if there was anything that he liked. I didn’t get it, and I still kind of don’t. Shouldn’t he have told them to break it up? Shouldn’t he have fined them for selling knock offs in an area that was clearly marked as a no-sell territory?
Sometimes we felt more comfortable in the atmosphere of the many malls that Bangkok has to offer. At the Fortune Town Mall on Rama 9, there are two floors devoted entirely to tech. As we passed shop after no-name, owner operated shop, we noticed a software section that had all the big names for sale like Microsoft and Adobe. Up close, you could tell that the software was pirated and that the product cases didn’t have DVDs in them.
Likewise, down the hall, we found shops that we thought were selling DVD movies, but didn’t actually have DVDs in the cases. We asked them if we could buy the movies, so they rang up the transaction in the register and then sent one of the employees running down the hall. They told us to wait. When the runner returned, he held the daily newspaper awkwardly in his hand. They then looked around and spilled the two discs we had purchased from between the pages of the paper and gave them to us. They told us to move along because they didn’t want the cops to see.
Are you kidding me? You have an entire store that is obviously in the business of selling pirated DVDs, but you can’t hold them in the shop because the cops will see you? How is this possible?
The fact is, the country has no regard for intellectual property. I have heard that it is like this in several other Asian countries. The authorities may make token statements about protecting copyright and such, and I am sure that some DVD sellers get hit with fines now and again, but it was clear, over and over, that everyone knew that everyone else didn’t really care about intellectual property.
I can’t begin to imagine how this has stifled the Thai economy. Whenever we would talk about the possibility of selling our cloud based software to local schools, the first question every Thai person would ask is “how are you going to keep people from copying you?” Even after describing the technical difference between a physical software disc and a browser accessible application in the cloud where strait code copying is impossible, they were still certain that if we had a good idea and tried to sell it that some one else would come along and steal it.
And this is what our current system gets us: a market where people make great stuff, but aren’t primarily concerned with being copied in a fraudulent way. Say what you will about the specifics of the law, but I am quite happy with the benefits that we have reaped as a country because of our cultural respect for intellectual property, and the enforcement of IP laws.
For much more amazing thoughts on the subject, see Nilay Patel’s excellent editorial at TIMN.