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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

South Korean piracy on the high seas of literature

In amongst the usual stuff about floral baskets and flailing imperialists an article caught my eye yesterday on the KCNA (North Korean news agency) website. It concerns the matter of copyright and an apparent controversy over South Korean publishers reprinting books by writers from the north without getting permission or providing royalties.

The particular novel in question in this article is "Rim Kkok Jong" (North Korean spelling) by Hong Myông-hûi. An interesting aspect of this is that the novel was written in the 1920s, long before North Korea ever existed, so it is actually the author's grandson, also a writer, who is the injured party. Most of the article is filled with his indignation at the idea that these unscrupulous publishers could be making money out of his grandfather's book, but there are some interesting points too:
Human rights and right to property are strictly protected in the DPRK under the law on copyright recently adopted at the Supreme People's Assembly as they were in the past.

An infringement upon copyright means stealing other's intellectual creation. Therefore, such act can never evade public rebuff and denunciation for its immorality although "law" may connive at it.
Ok, so we can skip over the part about human rights... What interests me most is North Korea's interest in adhering to the norms of the international capitalist system. In fact, not only is there a deep concern with adhering to capitalist norms, but these appear to be of the free market variety as opposed to the state capitalist flavour - ie individual private property is sacred. I don't think this should really be very surprising, but it does perhaps indicate an increasing interest in North Korea in the market.

Reading this brought to mind an article I read by Eric Lee (of Labourstart) a few years ago concerning Napster. Unfortunately it seems to have fallen into the internet black hole from whence nothing returns, but by some miracle I saved a copy. He argued that peer-to-peer file sharing was a classic example of new technology outgrowing capitalist relations of production - this is a means of distribution of a product which can only really work in a socialist society. Actually, four years and a number of legal onslaughts down the line big business seems to be finding ways to make a decent profit out of mp3s after all. But Eric did make some good points about this whole business of intellectual copyright etc:
When we look at the revolution in digital music and the broader issues raised by peer-to-peer networking, which allows the free distribution not only of music but of books, articles, art works, software, and so on, we can begin to sketch out a socialist program for culture and the arts in the twenty-first century. That program would include a guaranteed income for musicians, writers and artists, based on state support, while also guaranteeing no state control over the arts.

In such a society it is unlikely that any individual musicians are going to become very rich, but with the way technology is heading now, they're not going to get rich under capitalism either. In fact, the vast majority of musicians (and writers and artists) are well aware of the fact that only a tiny fraction of them will ever earn the big bucks. The vast majority of them struggle like the rest of us to make ends meet.
Of course, this does not mean to say that while we live under capitalism (and North Koreans clearly do just as much as the rest of us) artists and their families are not entitled to recompense for their work. But, unlike North Korea, we should also be challenging the currently prevailing means by which artistic products are produced and distributed.


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