Profiting From Piracy: Robin Li’s Problem Is China’s Problem

In Forbes, Gady Epstein writes about the current controversy over Baidu’s Wenku (Library) service, which allows users to download copyrighted protected books:

Baidu’s billionaire co-founder and CEO Robin Li, the richest man in China with $9.4 billion, is viewed by some as the Chinese Internet’s pirate king. In recent days, Li has faced a swell of criticism that he built his fortune in part by stealing from the poor, or more precisely, by allowing others to steal from the poor — in this case, Chinese authors whose works have been pirated en masse via user uploads to Baidu’s Wenku (Library) service. It is like a Napster for books, only if Napster were owned by Google (Google Books operates under a different, if also controversial, model, the most important difference being it does not allow users to download the entire text of copyright-protected books).

Baidu says it is working to address the writers’ concerns, reviewing its library for pirated books with the intent of taking them all off the site. Li said in Shenzhen yesterday that if the problems with Baidu Library can’t be fixed, he’ll shut it down. But the reason Li and Baidu are in this public relations mess now is because, for years, they behaved like many Chinese businesses, consumers and government officials: They exhibited a casual disregard for piracy, in a culture and economy that did not value intellectual property. (The same goes largely for expatriate consumers, including myself, who moved to China and all too quickly and eagerly adapted). Piracy proliferates in virtual China much as it proliferates in bricks-and-mortar China, and for the same fundamental reason, because it is rewarded.

Robin Li’s problem, in other words, is China’s problem, inherited from a time when its consumer market and economic power were small and weak, when there were virtually no significant Chinese brands and no Chinese billionaires. Times have changed, and it is long past time for Chinese companies, consumer culture and official attitudes to change.

See also “Baidu Takes Authors’ Fire” from the Wall Street Journal, and blogger Han Han’s take on the issue.


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