Opium Wars

Talk about some vivid flashbacks. As I was reading this week's "China Syndrome" cover story on the global problem of counterfeit hardware and software products, I was transported back a decade to when I was working for the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. On a July afternoon in 1995, I did something that, in hindsight, was pretty stupid.

I decided to do a photographic expose on the Golden Arcade, the notorious basement-level maze of shops and stalls in the Shamshuipo district of Hong Kong that was widely known as the heart of the region's counterfeit software industry. For around $5 to $10, you could buy just about any piece of software imaginable, from operating systems to relational databases to video games. And more often than not, the pirated version of any given U.S. software product was available in the arcade before the legitimate version was officially launched in Hong Kong.

Taking photographs in the Golden Arcade was risky. There were signs posted everywhere showing a camera with a big X over it, with written warnings that photography was strictly prohibited. It was no secret that Hong Kong's triads -- organized criminal elements - were heavily involved in the piracy trade, so the signs carried some serious clout.

It was hardly surprising, then, that I raised a ruckus when, once inside, I began snapping photographs. People were shouting, and a Westerner who was paying for his illegal wares scowled at me. "That'll get you into real trouble," he said. "Very trouble," a shopkeeper echoed in broken, but effective, English. I ignored them, took a few more photographs and left without incident.

My aim was to show readers around the world, in a way that words really couldn't, how brazen and institutionalized software piracy was in Hong Kong. But words are the only tool I have to convey why that was the case.

While there is no excuse for criminal activity, there are reasons for it, and there are contributing factors. One of the factors you don't hear much about is that the big-name U.S. software makers helped to foster a predisposition to software piracy.

For years, those vendors relied on local distribution partners to sell their products in Hong Kong, China and elsewhere in Asia, rather than investing in those markets with a direct presence. Since the distributors typically were grossly ill-equipped to provide decent technical support, users tended to feel like second-class customers. Paying full price for legitimate software was considered unfair when they weren't getting the support benefits that their counterparts in the West enjoyed.

Exacerbating the resentment were the heavy-handed tactics of the Washington-based Business Software Alliance. The fact that the BSA conducted raids and rewarded informants to nail companies that were using illegal software didn't sit well with many users. After all, the BSA represented companies that were seen as dragging their feet on investing in local support operations.

But most damaging of all was the fact that U.S. software vendors were considered two-faced. While the BSA was conducting its raids, senior executives from some of the top vendors would openly declare, "If the Chinese are going to pirate software, we want it to be ours." The point was that they wanted their software to be so entrenched in the market that being a de facto standard would eventually yield a huge payoff.

What they didn't realize was that trying to get the Chinese hooked on their software that way was a little, shall we say, insensitive. Remember the Opium Wars? They do.

Don Tennant

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. You can contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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