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BEIJING - Piracy has long been staining the reputation of China on intellectual property rights protection. However, thanks to government crackdowns and public awareness, things have changed for the better.
The reported end of free downloads of music, which has been confirmed by industry insiders to be under discussion by major international record companies and Chinese music sharing websites, is expected to mark another major achievement in China's battle against piracy.
The information, which was widely circulated on the Internet last week, has attracted immediate attention from a number of users. They voiced disappointment about not being able to enjoy music for free anymore, but at the same time admitted that protection of IPR must be stepped up.
Unpopular as it may first appear, the move toward paid downloads of music and films is inevitable in a society that pledges to protect IPR by law but has yet done a perfect job, drawing accusations from other countries.
The latest attack came during the third US presidential candidates' debate in late October when Republican Mitt Romney accused China of "stealing" US intellectual property. He was obviously ignoring China's concerted efforts in IPR protection in recent years.
Outside pressure comes from the country's commitment upon entering the World Trade Organization a decade ago, which includes protecting foreign IPR in China based on agreements it signed with the other country or the international pacts of which both parties are participants.
China also faces domestic pressure from IPR owners and free music websites that complain about insufficient profit - a free music platform launched by Google in 2009 was recently shut down, reportedly due to low traffic and lack of advertisement income.
To face up to the challenge, the government launched crackdowns on pirated products. In one of the latest campaigns, police in Jimo city, Shandong province, confiscated about 2,000 pirated copies.
In early 2011, police arrested more than 4,000 people suspected of IPR violations in a nationwide crackdown. Also, the Ministry of Public Security announced that vendors of illegally copied films, music or other copyright products online will face up to three years in jail.
In February this year, the country launched a nationwide campaign against online piracy, during which authorities investigated more than 2,800 cases, and withdrew certificates from at least 36 websites and companies.
The authorities have also aimed to set an example by ordering government agencies to use authentic software. In July, the first two stages of the campaign had been completed with inspection and correction of improper use of software in national authorities and provincial governments.
But, to uproot piracy, much more needs to be done.
The government needs to further tighten supervision over manufacturing and distribution by imposing heavier penalties. This will cost jobs, but it is the hard lesson people have to learn about respecting others' intellectual products and work to come up with their own.
In the meantime, more education and publicity is needed to further raise consumers' awareness of IPR protection because they are the key players that keep the piracy market running.
Luckily, many universities in China offer courses on IPR and the government runs non-commercial advertisements against IPR infringement.
As consumers turn to pirated products for low cost, hopefully, when consumers become wealthier, which is already happening to some degree, the appetite for counterfeits will gradually diminish.