Andrew C. Mertha, Ph.D., assisstant professor of political science in Arts & Sciences

*The Politics of Piracy: Intellectual Property in Contemporary China*

(Cornell University Press, September 2005)

China is by far the world’s leading producer of counterfeit goods — from knock-off designer-brand clothing to pirated films and books, to imitation consumer electronics and aircraft parts — a black market that costs legitimate companies in America and elsewhere billions of dollars in lost sales annually.

While many are calling for Chinese authorities to crack down on rampant violations of international copyright, trademark and patent protections, a new book suggests that such external pressure will have little or no impact on the crux of the problem: the central government’s inability to enforce intellectual property norms across the vast reaches of China’s 31 provinces.

“Recent rhetoric of those who champion direct confrontation of China over intellectual property protection reflects an astonishing degree of ignorance about the bureaucratic nature of the Chinese legal, economic and political systems,” says Andrew C. Mertha, Ph.D., author of a new book, The Politics of Piracy: Intellectual Property in Contemporary China (September 2005, Cornell University Press).

“Increases in U.S. pressure will only result in Beijing digging in its heels and being far less receptive to U.S. concerns.”

Mertha, an assistant professor of political science and international studies in Arts & Sciences, has researched Chinese intellectual property issues since 1998.

He has lived and worked in the country for seven years since 1988.

“External pressure may lead to formal agreements in Beijing, resulting in new laws and official regulations, but it is China’s complex network of bureaucracies that decides actual policy and enforcement,” says Mertha. “The sustained pressure of international negotiations has shaped China’s patent and copyright laws, but the key to gaining enforcement of those laws lies at the local level.”

Mertha’s conclusions are drawn from personal interviews with hundreds of people playing behind-the-scenes roles in China’s multi-layered bureaucratic power structure.

These include interview with local government officials and businesspeople throughout China, national political leaders, scholars, lawyers, trade representatives and veterans of private investigative agencies specializing in Chinese business disputes, as well as some of the pirates themselves.

While the existing literature on intellectual property in China focuses largely on legal issues, Mertha’s book is among the first to tackle these problems from a local political perspective, suggesting that the success of current efforts to deal with street-level piracy ultimately hinges on an intimate understanding of power politics in China’s local bureaucracies and government-business relations.

His book explains why policing intellectual property in China is such a daunting challenge, noting, for instance, that leaders of local government bureaucracies are often intimately involved with companies that profit from pirated goods.

“Intellectual property in China is a highly sensitive and often misunderstood policy issue,” Mertha concludes.

“It is embedded in a complicated institutional context, one in which change is often swift and dramatic — and uneven — and its future trajectory remains largely uncertain.

“If we want to curtail piracy and counterfeiting in China, we must learn the lessons of past engagement with China over the issue as well as take into account some of the basic factors of IPR violations in China that never seem to make it onto the public — and often, private — discourse over the issue.

“Ultimately, to be effective, we must find some way to work with national-level Chinese authorities, to help them implement laws already on the books and enforce them at the local level.”

— Gerry Everding