Pirates of Pansodan street
A new copyright law may bankrupt Myanmar's pirated book business.
Along Yangon's Pansodan Street toward Merchant Road, located among the heritage Victorian buildings of colonial-era Rangoon, a pirated book market thrives. The books lining the shelves of street-side stalls, or inside adjacent bookstores, give the appearance of a booming business, featuring longtime bestsellers from Aung San Suu Kyi's Freedom from Fear and Letters from Burma to George Orwell's Burmese Days. But a closer inspection reveals that these are photocopied versions of the originals being sold for a fraction of the price.
As Myanmar's new copyright law comes into effect this year, pirated books will likely begin to disappear from the bargain shelves, and many bookstores will feel the pinch. Urged on by publishers in the country, the government has begun to hold panel discussions on the new laws. Writers – many disgruntled by past copyright infringements – have also begun to highlight copyright issues through campaigns. But there is more to this story than meets the eye. Pirated books have seen Myanmar through periods of media suppression, they help the public learn about sensitive topics like the Rohingya crisis, and, some might argue, they add value to the economy.
Pirates versus publishers
Book piracy, the unauthorised use or reproduction of another's work, is a term that evokes maritime theft and plunder. The industry dates back to 16th-century England and 17th-century Europe. In Myanmar, as in many emerging economies, pirated books are commonplace.
But over the years Myanmar's book pirates have faced increasing opposition from Myanmar's publishing industry. Publishers like Myo Aung, who sells imported books, have been asking the government to adopt modern intellectual-property legislation for the last ten years. Myanmar did not sign the 1886 Berne Convention – an international agreement governing copyright, and the Burma Copyright Act of 1914, conceived prior to the advent of the internet and applicable only to domestically produced literary works, has been ineffective.
Publishers claim that their industry faces structural challenges, such as rising rents and poor logistics and distribution systems. In 2019, a new copyright law was adopted along with patent, trademark and industrial-design laws to bring Myanmar into a new age of intellectual property rights. The law will impact approximately 2822 registered publishing businesses in Myanmar. Still, according to the new law, Myanmar's President Win Myint must announce the date of enforcement for the law to be applicable. "I told the government not to wait [to implement the law]. The earliest date possible is good for everyone," said Myo Aung, owner of Pyi Zone Publishing House in Yangon.
Myo Aung believes there are roughly 100 unregistered book publishers still operating in Yangon, where the country's publishing industry is located. Looming enforcement has sent shockwaves through Yangon's pirated-book market to nearby streets where pirated DVDs and CDs can be found. The new law extends to audiovisual, film, architectural and choreographic works, among others.
Piracy during dictatorship
Parallel to Pansodan Street, just one block east on Merchant Road, is 37th Street. This is where Ko Harry Books, Bagan Book House and OS Bookshop are located. It is also home to the Old Book Market that sells secondhand children's books and novels in English and Burmese languages, buried alongside pirated nonfiction books on Burma's turbulent political history.
Following the 1962 military coup, many books were banned outright by the new regime and freedom of speech was severely restricted. As a result, many people smuggled books into the country, photocopied them and sold them clandestinely. At the time, piracy was critical for spreading new ideas. "In the past, booksellers would hide banned books. You needed to request the book. He would look at you to determine whether he should sell it to you or not," said Myo Myo, a Yangon-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal. "If the authorities knew he was selling banned books he could be detained," she added.
Meanwhile, the 2019 copyright law will almost definitely affect the revenue stream of book retailers. Their revenues have continually decreased since the reforms to Myanmar's telecommunications sector began to take effect in 2013, allowing for the spread of cheap SIM cards and data plans. Myanmar's internet penetration rate increased from approximately one percent to 31 percent between 2011 and 2017, while in the same period mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants increased from 2.4 to 90.
This means that more people are now likely to use the internet to read books – where many books are now available, for free, online. Recognising this trend, Myanmar's biggest wireless carrier created an ebook app with book prices between MMK 500 and 800 kyat (35 to 56 US cents). Like book pirates, they too hope to capitalise on high demand for books and the unaffordability of original books.
Unfortunately, this is a perspective that is often overlooked by publishers in Myanmar. "In this business it's important to be honest," said Myo Aung. "You must ask permission and acquire the rights to publish a book. If you're caught pirating, please apologise."