Culture Clash


Sunday, May 12, 2002

Intellectual property
rights less of an issue
in some countries

As the author of well-received books on topics such as leadership and Asian economies, Michael LaPointe was a popular lecturer and business consultant. He was invited to give workshops in Shanghai at different companies contemplating expansion into international markets. His host was Wang Jun, who had studied at UCLA and who heard Michael speak there six years ago. During a break from his hectic schedule, Michael suggested that they go to a department store so he could buy gifts for friends and family members. In a section of one store that sold books, Michael found a Chinese version of his recently published "International Business and Your Future." "I didn't know this version existed," Michael said. "Maybe protection of intellectual property will be better in future years," Wang Jun replied.

One reason for Michael's discovery of a pirated version of his book is based on a cultural difference. In China, historically, knowledge was considered open and that once a person made an intellectual contribution others could use it. People using knowledge found in books and other publications did not have to constantly cite the sources of their ideas, as they must in other countries such as the United States. In addition, the people who published would receive a great deal of status as "the author of a book." These select people did not feel the need for additional attention stemming from citations by others. As a colleague once told me, "The author has already achieved great prominence. It would be considered petty to insist on citations when others use published information. Further, the author should start a new book rather than waste time monitoring different versions of an earlier work."

There may be changes in the future. As part of entry into the World Trade Organization, the Chinese government has agreed to abide by the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement. This agreement provides a minimum level of protection for the owners of intellectual property. However, there are few judges and attorneys in China familiar with intellectual property rights, and so there are now training programs being administered to develop the necessary expertise.

Another push for change is coming from individual Chinese authors, musicians and fashion designers. These Chinese artists feel that they could do much better financially if there was protection against plagiarism, piracy and knockoffs. Given that many have international followings, they have been successfully calling attention to the protection of their intellectual contributions.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with Nicholas Ordway of the University of Hawaii College of Business Administration.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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