October 26, 2012

In Search of 'Dexter': Why You Can't Buy Pirated DVDs in China Anymore

In the final presidential debate on Monday, both candidates identified the United States' need to ensure that Beijing protects intellectual property rights (IPR), such as copyrights, patents and trademarks. President Obama argued that one of the main tenets of his China policy was to insist that the People's Republic "plays by the same rules as everybody else." Governor Romney echoed this point, complaining that China is "stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs." According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, copyright infringement in China resulted in approximate losses of $23.7 billion for U.S. companies in 2009.

Over the past four years, however, China's attempts to combat piracy and counterfeiting have led to remarkable improvements that surprisingly have gone unnoticed. Unnoticed, that is, unless you have ever tried to buy illegal DVDs in Beijing.

In 2004, "DVD, VCD?" could be heard from every intersection and underground walkway to popular coffee houses and office building lobbies in Beijing. You couldn't walk down Wangfujing or Jianguowai without someone shoving a large selection of American television shows, pop music CDs, and newly released movies in your face. It was popular among foreigners and Chinese alike to get one's fill of Hollywood this way, especially as the quality of pirated, or daoban, DVDs improved. By the mid-2000s, DVDs made by someone filming the TV or movie screen were rare compared to high quality merchandise made from copies of the originals.

But when I returned to Beijing in March 2010, the street vendors had vanished. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the illegal trade had just relocated off the streets to stores and shops around town with legitimate facades. It was in one of these shops that I noticed the first four seasons of Dexter being sold at $140 less than its listed price in the United States, for the hefty sum of $16.

Dexter fans out there know that season four ends with a real nail-biter. With that in mind, my sister asked me to keep an eye out for season five when I was in Beijing just last week. I scoured the streets to satisfy her request but couldn't find any cheap DVDs. After a few days of failing to come across any stores with a "special" section in the back, I pulled aside a shop girl and asked her in a low voice, "Where can I find season five of Dexter?"

"Sorry," she replied. "You can't find pirated DVDs anywhere these days."

The girl was nice enough to suggest that I try the Internet. But the Chinese government has cracked down on Internet piracy as well. It used to be that you could Google "watch TV" and a list of Chinese websites would come up. Now, even armed with Chinese language skills, I could only find previews for Dexter season seven on major Chinese video websites like tudou.com or youku.com. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative informs me that this is thanks to the licensing agreements these websites have signed with major U.S. studios to stream content legally. Not everyone was so lucky; the Chinese government shut down over 200 websites during its "Special Campaign" against IPR infringement launched in October 2010, sentencing two operators to between three and five years in prison with fines as high as US$228,000.

Chinese IPR violations, especially in the software and high-tech industries, are relentless. The country's software piracy rate has been holding steady around 77 percent the past three years, according to the Business Software Alliance. China has also been a persistent collector of U.S. technologies and trade secrets through electronic means, examples of which were detailed in an Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive report last.

Admittedly, with a little perseverance, I'm sure I could have found season five of Dextersomewhere. But the point is, it's now markedly more difficult to procure pirated DVDs in China than it was just four years ago. So how does Dexter move forward after the chilling season-four finale? Does he begin to question his serial-killing ways? Thanks to the past four years of U.S-China cooperation against piracy, I still don't know. I'm waiting for the box set to come in the mail.