The big issue: Never-ending pirate chase

The big issue: Never-ending pirate chase

A police officer at the Economic Crime Suppression Division displays illegal software that was being sold online. A crackdown on piracy is meant to get Thailand off the US dirty-dozen list. (Photo by Jiraporn kuhakan)
A police officer at the Economic Crime Suppression Division displays illegal software that was being sold online. A crackdown on piracy is meant to get Thailand off the US dirty-dozen list. (Photo by Jiraporn kuhakan)

The director-general of the Intellectual Property Department has been hounding pirates longer than the Spaniards tracked Henry Morgan, although not as successfully. Now Nuntawan Sakuntanaga is calling in the army to raid pirate stalls, kiosks and sidewalk stands, because just a few more seizures and the DVD, Gucci-scarf and Coach purse sellers will be wiped out.

She wants to get off that pesky annual US list of the dirty-dozen worst pirating nations. A wise person thought up the cliche that those who ignore history are certain to repeat it.

There’s a lot of similarity between the industrial revolution and the technology revolution. Both were massively disruptive on virtually every level — economic, social, cultural and more.

All comparisons are imperfect and there are important differences between the two. One notable difference is that the industrial revolution was fed by an amazing series of inventions of physical machines and the opening of massive factories on a scale never before imagined. Our current economic revolution is fed by stupendous but nebulous inventions of virtual machines and massive spaces that we cannot touch and only sometimes can feel — software, the internet, the cloud and so on.

The inventions of the past were supposedly protected by patents, and the inventions of the present are, again supposedly, protected by copyright and trademarks. While each of these has its own legal definition, all of them are grouped — supposedly enforced by clear laws about intellectual property and a robust justice system.

Ha ha. Just kidding. (You probably saw what we did there, with three “supposedlys”.)

But consider that in the 18th century, we had the authorities and courts of England and the US enforcing IP laws, and in today’s 21st century, we have Ms Nuntawan and a military regime enforcing IP laws. And it turns out that today’s enforcement is actually up to the former IP protection standards.

For example, in 1785, the Rev Edmund Cartwright of Leicestershire invented the most important machine of the industrial revolution: the power loom. It automated the process of combining threads into cloth, and made Britain the greatest nation of cloth and garments and international trade, well, ever — including today.

Cartwright had plenty of patent protection. But men like the odious “cotton king” and IP pirate Richard Arkwright, well protected by shadowy influential figures, opened mills and used Cartwright’s loom without paying. He also made copies. As it is today, this was highly illegal.

The power loom should have made Cartwright the richest man in the world, on a scale with oil magnate John D Rockefeller or Bill Gates, but he quickly went into debt just trying to protect his patents. In the end, parliament pitied him so much it gave him £10,000 from the public purse, which at least let him live out his days in comfort, without a shred of justice.

In America, just eight years after Cartwright’s loom got a patent, Eli Whitney invented and patented the cotton gin (“gin” being a shortened form of “engine”). This incredible machine automated the separation of sticky cotton from bolls, an operation so tedious that not even slave labour could perform it profitably.

Whitney and partners patented and began marketing the marvellous gin, which did the work of 50 slaves without maintenance costs.

The problem for Whitney and the 18th century predecessors of Ms Nuntawan was that the gin was an extremely simple machine — so simple that any half-trained workman could make a copy as easily as (I'm searching for a good simile), as easily as making a DVD copy.

Whitney had the full power of US government enforcers and courts, and found that many cotton growers didn’t want to pay for a gin when they could make one just as good for a fraction of what Whitney wanted to charge, which was a fee plus a third of the profits from the cotton crop.

Whitney and friends spent the meagre profits from legal cotton gin sales on patent infringement lawsuits against hundreds of pirates. Within seven years, partner Catharine Greene had to sell her home just to have cash for the three to live on. Whitney essentially went broke on the cotton gin.

Whitney died in 1825 of prostate cancer. In 1958, Nuntawan Sakuntanaga was born (happy birthday on Wednesday, Ms Nuntawan), and this completes the circle and our tale.

Ms Nuntawan figures that a few military-led raids should wrap up problems that police couldn’t even control, where courts have proved ponderous and where the Intellectual Property Department has been stymied, stonewalled and serially discomposed.

If they are planned well, held in proper secrecy and conducted professionally, elite troops can overrun several sales kiosks and come out owning thousands of DVDs and hundreds of fake Gucci bags, Microsoft Windows copies, generic and counterfeit Viagra and enough falsely labelled shirts for a battalion, and put a few street-level sellers in detention.

It is disappointing if not just amazing that the same government contemplating a surrender in the war on drugs seeks to escalate the war on IP pirates.

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