Mourners and morticians vs. copyright protectors – Taiwan’s controversy over memorial CD-ROMs

For Asia Times Online

The back alley in Taipei’s satellite city is closed to traffic. A tarpaulin spans a hundred square meters where normally cars and Taiwan’s hallmark motor scooters are parked. The tent’s entry is decorated with orange wreaths, and gifts for the afterworld are displayed: beer pallets and models made of cardboard of a villa and a Mercedes Benz. The mourners sit on simple folding benches, the deceased man’s coffin placed in front of them.

A subtle tension is perceptible when the funeral director starts tinkering with the widescreen flat-panel monitor in the corner. Seconds later, images depicting the deceased in his lifetime appear in a photo stream, and a pre-mortem recorded voice wishes a “Thank you for coming, I wish you all live to a hundred twenty years”. Incense smoke and the tunes of Willie Nelson’s ‘You are always on my mind’ fill the tent.

This is how Taiwanese say farewell to the dead. According to reports by local media, copyright protectors now cry foul play. The popular use of memorial CD-ROMs infringes intellectual property rights (IPR), and mourners ought to pay up. Taiwan’s zealous IP protectors claim that although the likelihood of funeral ceremonies being raided by police remains low, IP laws are clearly broken. This is especially the case when the deceased’s favorite songs are placed on blogs or photo sharing websites as it is commonly done. In the past, Taiwan has been reputed for rampant copyright piracy, but the controversy over the memorial CD-ROM implies that times have changed.

“In 2001, the U.S. called Taiwan a haven for pirates”, said Sean Spicer, spokesperson for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. “Taiwan has come a long way on this issue over the last couple of years.”

Spicer praised the Taiwanese authorities for having strengthened laws and having demonstrated a commitment to becoming a “haven for innovation and creativity.”

Worldwide sales of recorded music fell by about 10 percent last year. In late 2009, governments in South Korea, Taiwan and France have enacted tough laws aimed at curbing unauthorized copying. Taiwan has drawn up schemes like the ‘National Police Agency-assisted IPR Anti-infringement Implementation Plan’ which directs police to continually strengthen investigative efforts in the fight against piracy. Seminars are held to educate the police force, and island-wide searches of night markets, shopping areas, factories, warehouses, storage containers and even checks of newspaper inserts are carried out. In a two months period in 2009, the Taiwanese police uncovered a total of 1,146 IPR infringement cases.

Apart from police work, copyright groups like the Music Copyright Society of Chinese Taipei (MUST) have become more vocal. The group handles licensing, fee collection and distribution for the copyright owners. In cases of infringements of musicians’ intellectual property rights, MUST vows to take legal actions. Regarding the dispute over the memorial CD-ROMs, Taiwan’s copyright protectors emphasize that the fact that no cases of tough law enforcement against mourning families have occurred doesn’t mean the popular practice is legal.

In Taiwanese newspaper reports MUST presents a simple calculation: for music being broadcasted at non-commercial gatherings such as funerals with audiences up to five hundred, NT$1000 (US$31.50) should be paid for ten songs or fewer.

Television and radio stations, karaoke parlors, dance clubs, bars, airlines, hotels, department stores and operators of websites must obey by IPR laws, and since even ring tones of cell phones are subject to them, for the sake of fairness memorial CD-ROMs can apparently not be spared.

There are plenty more indicators that Taiwan has gone to great lengths to shake off its ‘haven for pirates’ reputation. A specialized IPR court was established, and the Ministry of Education launched the ‘Campus IPR Action Plan’ to fight illegal on campus textbook copying. Amendments to the copyright law were passed that make it easier for right holders to stop copyright infringement on the internet. These efforts bore fruit and Taiwan’s piracy rate has steadily declined. It is now considered to be third lowest in all of Asia, ranked only behind Japan and Singapore

Producers of memorial CD-ROMs advertise that songs chosen by the dead played at the funerals bring emotions to a climax. “To deliver quality work isn’t child’s play”, Chen Kai-wen who offers his services through the internet points out. “Presenting a whole life in a few minutes to the satisfaction of the bereaved requires skill.”

Some families would hand Chen hundreds of pictures, others only ten. Either way doesn’t work out because the amount of photos needed for an excellently made memorial CD-ROM should be around thirty per song. Otherwise the photo stream would become too boringly slow or, even worse, too hectic.

In his Chen’s eyes, Taiwanese morticians and CD producers both do a great job to soothe the bereaved relatives’ emotional pain, and he also understands the necessity for the collection of copyright fees. Chen promises: “In future we will encourage the grieving families to be creative and use music they have recorded themselves. If they still insist on playing protected songs, I think it should be up to the morticians to pay the bill.”



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