Standing on the top floor of a large, mall-like shopping center in downtown Xi'an, there was no way for me to know that the shrink-wrapped King of Fighters collection was an illegal copy. My Chinese was good enough to get around the streets, but it wasn't up to grilling a salesman on authenticity. The packaging was a little garish, but not so much that it was out of line with other games I'd seen from SNK Playmore, developers of the fighting game series. And I didn't remember hearing about any PC ports, but I'd never really gone looking. The package even had an ISBN! Only real software has one of those, right?
When I returned home a month later, I'd be lying if I said I was surprised to find that the CD actually contained a copy of the WinKawaks arcade emulator and six Neo-Geo ROM dumps. The ISBN was a fake, and the manual was a blatant hack job. Even worse, it wasn't even a functioning disk: The file system was corrupt, so you could see the files but couldn't access them. Here's a moral question for you: How evil is it to download pirated ROMs and an emulator in order to "fix" my 22-yuan (~U.S. $3) Chinese bootleg? Let's just say it wasn't one of my proudest moments.
I like to think of myself as a reasonably ethical person. But deep down inside, I knew I wasn't buying a legitimate piece of software - and somehow, I just didn't care. For visitors to the People's Republic of China (PRC), the temptation to buy bootlegs is hard to resist. Piracy is everywhere, and not just for software. Clothing labels, music, movies, books - they're all fair game to counterfeiting rings. For the Chinese, caught in a developing economic mash up between Maoist philosophy and capitalism run rampant, piracy is a way of life.
Gradually, the rest of the world is beginning to wake up to the power of the Chinese economy. Entertainment software is no different in that respect. Like all market transactions, the prevalence of piracy can be broken down into the forces of supply and demand. But is there any way out of this criminal market and into a more virtuous one?
Demand is keeping me down
In 2003, between my second and third years of learning Mandarin, I traveled through China for about a month with a group of other Washington, D.C., undergraduates. We spent about a week in both Shanghai and Beijing, but the bulk of our trip was centered around Xi'an Jiaotong Daxue, a large university in the central Chinese city of Xi'an. Once the capital city of the Qin and Han dynasties, periods which formed the identity of China as a unified empire, it is now a curious mix of the ancient and the modern. Busy downtown traffic flows around city walls dating back hundreds of years, while massive hotels stand only a few blocks from the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, where Buddhist monks translated their religion's first holy texts. As much as any city can represent the sense of progress combined with the weight of history that comprises modern China, Xi'an does.
Despite its advancement in other areas, my host university's internet access was a joke. To get online, I paid a couple of yuan an hour at the internet bar just off campus, and I was in good company: Although Chinese computer ownership has skyrocketed over the last decade, cafes are still scattered liberally, and they're still popular. At any time, they were packed with kids surfing the web, chatting with friends using QQ messaging software, or playing games like Counterstrike, Diablo and various MMOGs. And no matter where I went in China, the boot screens invariably read "Windows '99" or other blatantly hacked displays, trumpeting their pirated status for anyone to see. Somehow, I doubt that the rest of the games and software were any more legitimate.
In fact, the International Intellectual Property Alliance country report for China states that piracy rates (i.e., the percentage of the citizenry's installed software not legitimately purchased) for entertainment software reached 96 percent during my visit. That's a high point since 2001, but only this year has it dropped below 90 percent. The IIPA valued the Chinese stolen game market at $590 million, and that number is based on what people paid for the bootlegs, not what the actual retail price would've been. That's a lot of loose change falling between the metaphorical sofa cushions.