From KFC (Khmer Fried Chicken) to my genuine Tushiba-branded fan, copying is not just an artform but also a way of life here. Just a bit of harmless fun, no?
The copy-cat culture certainly starts young. The education system, explains Kelsey, the other westerner in my village who teaches English at the high school, engrains lifting and plagiarism as soon as kids start class. Teaching usually involves simply copying from the board. And testing is no better - pupils just reproduce each others’ work, and this is completely tolerated if not encouraged. Thus the education system utterly fails to develop critical faculties and independent thinking in children – and so the culture of copying continues.
And so these copy-cat kids grow up into a counterfeit country - I had no idea before arriving here that there is no copyright law in Cambodia (or if there is it universally ignored), so anything goes. Knock offs of branded consumer goods are everywhere, from jeans and trainers to CDs / DVDs, from pharmaceuticals to books, from food and drink to artwork.
You do have to laugh sometimes - the ‘Toys Are We’ in Phnom Penh and ‘6 – 11’ store in Siem Reap show cheeky creativity, and imitation posters for Les Adventures de Tintin et les Khmers Rouges display a dark if witty ingenuity . But why then do so few Cambodians develop their own business ideas, rather than just cloning those of others?
So is it a bad thing?
I confess that part of me rather likes it. On a modest VSO allowance it’s rather good to buy a ripped Mika album for a dollar or a photocopied Lonely Planet for three. The fact that my guitar playing is more Friends Pheobe than Franz Ferdinand cannot be blamed on my faultless, forty-buck ‘Yamaha’ from Phnom Penh’s Russian market. I even bought a pair of Levi jeans in my village – “genuine fake, only ten dorra” explained the happy hawker. And they really were indistinguishable from the real thing, save the sewn up pockets and a little tightness in the crotch area.
But I have a nagging feeling that knowingly buying fakes isn’t a morally neutral act – can it really be ok to take part in this culture of copying?
5 Reasons why it’s completely fine to buy clever copies:
- Everyone does it – even nice, ethical VSO-types. Not because we’re bad, just because that’s the system. You can’t buy originals of many goods such as CDs, clothes etc even if you wanted to – fakes are the only game in town. And as there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a copyright law here it’s probably perfectly legal too.
- Even if it’s technically not legal, it’s at worst a victimless crime – you wouldn’t buy the stuff at full (read rip-off) price, so all you’re doing is supporting poor folk trying to make a few bucks on the grey economy – where’s the harm?
- Why pay more? Even if you could get originals, why should you pay five or ten times the price for say a book or DVD? Isn’t the money better in your (hard-working) pocket than in that of an already rich publisher or multinational music or movie conglomerate? When did you last see a starving pop star / Holywood actor?
- The fakes here are good! Don’t swallow the propaganda about paying more for the real deal, everyone knows that Asian folk can copy anything, and do a jolly good job of it.
- This isn’t just about cheap stuff, this is a way of fighting back against the great branding swindle that Western consumers have been subjected to for too long. Think Napster, Pirate Bay, Spotify; think open-source software; if you want to get really angry think drug companies charging so much that poor people die because they can’t afford the medicines, whilst they callously block cheaper substitutes. Reject over-priced brands, and help fight back against the great rip-off!
And 5 reasons why you should never support piracy:
- It’s illegal. Whatever the detail of Cambodian statute, it’s clearly against international legal norms. The very least we should be doing is doing the right thing and obeying the law - especially those of us who are role-models in developing countries. And anyway, since when has ‘everyone else does it’ been a good reason for doing anything?
- It’s a harmful racket, not a victimless crime. At best you are propagating a culture of copying which stifles innovation and inhibits major companies from investing as their intellectual property is not protected – thus damaging the development of the country. At worst this is this is piracy, sweat-shop produced goods, sold through exploited pushers, controlled by the same gangs who direct the drug and sex trades. Buy fakes and support organised crime – still a price worth paying?
- You can pay the correct, legal price, and the money will go fairly to all those who have helped bring you the goods. Or you can pay the knock-off rate, save yourself a few bob, and you’ll have helped to deprive those who developed or designed the goods – the writers, artists, designers etc – of what is rightfully theirs. How is that fair, exactly?
- You get what you pay for – books which fall apart, DVDs with crappy pictures, CDs of dubious quality – pay peanuts, get junkies. Worse, if you’re daft enough to buy fake medicines (which account for anything up to 80% of those on sale over the counter here), you’ll be lucky if it’s simply a placebo – more likely it’ll be heavily cut with harmful thickeners. And how do you feel when your plucky counterfeiters use their special skills to refill and seal bottles with unclean water or alter best-before dates on expired food – not such heroes now are they?
- You know it’s wrong, so don’t do it.