Myanmar and the United States: Two Tales of Copyright Piracy

Song writers and composers often go to great lengths to create new songs and, like all creators, wish to maintain control over their creation, particularly if the song becomes popular or iconic.  The copyright laws developed centuries ago to foster such activities, much like the patent laws encourage innovation. Through international treaties, songs and other content are protected across the world, provided the countries adhere to the rules and guidelines in the treaties.

Although a member of international treaties, with copyright law obligations, the nation of Myanmar’s copyright laws have not been updated for over a hundred years, and apparently cover only works first printed in Mynamar.  Accordingly, all content is fair game, and Myanmar has pop stars singing popular world songs, primarily American, with adaptive Burmese lyrics.  In short, these song writers in their new songs and videos have created derivative works from the original songs, such as from Celine Dion, Bob Dylan and many others.

Copyright laws cover the expression of new ideas, whether in words, software code, images, statues or other manifestations of expression.  The depth of human ingenuity and capability of expression have no bounds, and the copyright laws were designed to provide protection for much of humanity’s expressions.  One of the bundle of copyright rights accorded creators is the right to control derivative works, i.e., adaptations from the original work.  J.K. Rowling, for example, has zealously guarded her Harry Potter creation, and for good measure since otherwise we would have been inundated with countless knock-offs and facsimiles.

Some may argue that this is unjust, that people should have broad rights to engage in such copying endeavors.  For this, the copyright laws allow an exception to the copyright holder’s broad rights, i.e., fair use.  However, a fair use of another’s property almost always entails a societal good involved, such as commentary, satire, education and such.  We value free speech and the ability to criticize and discuss.  We also value fairness.  If the copyist makes money from someone else’s labor, this greatly undermines the fair use exception.  Again, humans are inherently creative, and need not copy or emulate another person’s success, particularly for profit.  Other and different creations are thus encouraged, which increases the fund of human knowledge.

In the early years of our nation, America was a pirate nation and our copyright laws were inadequate to counter this scourge against creativity.  Charles Dickens and many others railed against our lack of adequate copyright laws.  Mark Twain was also a strong critic of publishers printing the novels, stories, poems and other content of artists, domestic and international, without any permissions or payment to the artists.  Mark Twain said in exasperation: “Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.”

I recently saw a movie about Edgar Allen Poe and he, too, was an earlier advocate of amending the American copyright laws to protect artists.  Eventually, the United States did amend their copyright laws (1909), in part thanks to Twain, and have since become a strong advocate for adhering to the law.  China and other countries have repeatedly pointed out our own history of copyright piracy in an attempt to justify modern piracy.

Thus, just as America did over a century ago, Myanmar needs to amend its antiquated copyright laws (1914), which allow the copying and adaptation of virtually everything for free, from Lady GaGa’s videos to Bill O’Reilly’s books.  Thus, international popular songs and movies there are freely adapted and played, e.g., the iconic imaging of the Dion song on the prow of the Titanic is duplicated. These copy-songs and videos are all the rage, and Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein and other Burmese pop stars are using others’ property for private gain. Many of the artists, such as Ms. Thein, expressed ignorance of the copyright laws, and to be fair, there are apparently no violations there with the laws so written.

Hopefully, the Burmese government will soon pass legislation to accord their copyright laws with the international treaties’ obligations and stop this unfairness. Perhaps our own government can apply trade and other pressure in this regard.

Indeed, the artists in Mynamar, although not now required to pay royalties to the aggrieved parties, should instead engage in that most human of activities, creative expression, their own creative expression.

Ray Van Dyke, Founder of Van Dyke Law, Patent/IP Practitioner and Educator