New Copyright Law May Be a Mixed Blessing

When members of the National Assembly unanimously approved Cambodia’s first copyright and patent law in January, recording artists and producers breathed a collective sigh of relief.

In principle, the passage of such a law could kick-start struggling local film and music recording industries and herald a new era of artistic diversity. Once artists are protected by the law, the theory goes, profits from legitimate film and record sales will go straight back into the industry to nurture new talent and for technical improvements.

But film and music retailers and members of the business community are beginning to question the government’s haste to sign and enforce the copyright law—a major prerequisite for admission into the World Trade Organization, which Cambodia hopes to join later this year. Cambodia, they say, is ill-prepared for a move that could—in the short term at least—seriously limit the import of foreign music and film, and deprive the nation of a major source of cultural diversity.

Chy Sila is the general director of the corporation that owns CD World, one of Cambodia’s largest CD and VCD retailers and a specialist in foreign music and film.

Copied discs currently make up the great majority of his stock. He says that if the government is true to its threats of copyright enforcement, he will have to change all his stock to original discs by the end of this year, and charge between $6 and $10 for each—a price far beyond the budget of most Cambodians.

“The government wants to join the WTO and wants everything to be strict. But they don’t understand about the living conditions in this country—they’re still too low for this,” Chy Sila said. “In my opinion, it’s not the right time yet.”

And were there a market for such highly-priced products, supplying it would also be problematic.

One of the main factors blocking legitimate CD and VCD imports is tax. Eng Chhay Nguon is general director of the Hang Meas Video company, which produces karaoke videos, movies and music. He says the government’s current tariffs make imports prohibitively expensive.

“I want the government to reduce the tax on imported CDs, VCDs and DVDs,” he said. Because there are no professional editing facilities in Cambodia, Eng Chhay Nguon currently has to send discs abroad for editing and then pay tax to re-import the discs. “I have to pay 25 percent tax on an imported CD or VCD,” he said.

Another problem is the tiny scale of the Cambodian market. Chy Sila said he recently met with record label bosses in Malaysia and Singapore to discuss supplying his store with legitimate CDs. “They refused to supply us because the market here is too small,” he said. “They only supply in bulk.”

Even a blockbuster pop CD by an act like Britney Spears or Westlife sells only a few hundred copies in CD World, Chy Sila explained. Major record labels will not consider orders of less than a few thousand, he said.

Leng Sarith sells bootleg foreign CDs at Phsar Tuol Tumpong. He also considers selling original discs an unrealistic option. “Cambodia and foreign markets are very different,” Leng Sarith said. “The Cambodian market is too small—we couldn’t charge customers the same price as in other countries.”

One option is for the government to work with music and film publishers to negotiate a deal in which legitimate discs are sold in Cambodia at a price better suited to the salaries of ordinary people. In Thailand, where intellectual property legislation has been effective for some years, the government was unable to lure consumers away from pirated CDs and VCDs until it worked out such a deal to lower the price of original recorded material.

Bretton Sciaroni, the chairman of the International Business Club, agrees that the new law will put vendors in something of a Catch-22 situation.

“It’s an irony that you probably cannot buy a real CD in Cambodia,” Sciaroni said. “It’s an unfortunate practical problem, but vendors are going to have to find a solution.

“We don’t have the option of picking and choosing which [WTO-stipulated] laws to adhere to,” he continued. “But enforcement of the copyright law is not going to be easy.”

Sciaroni agreed with CD World boss Chy Sila that the government must take steps to smooth the import of genuine films and music.

“The Ministry of Commerce should be looking at working to improve trade,” he said. Where CDs and VCDs are concerned, this means reducing tariffs and facilitating the distribution of original products, Sciaroni said.

But Khek Ravy, secretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, said making these changes is not as simple as it sounds.

“It’s very difficult; the market is too small for suppliers and the import duty is high, so it’s not feasible for people to import CDs and VCDs from abroad,” Khek Ravy explained. “But what can we do?”

As a signatory of the Asean Free Trade Agreement, the government aims to substantially reduce trade tariffs by 2015. “The government wants to open the market,” Khek Ravy said, adding that the ministry plans to bring import taxes to a more manageable level within seven years.

The Ministry of Culture is responsible for the law’s passage from paper to practice, and is currently focusing its efforts on enforcement of the bootleg ban, rather than ensuring the availability of genuine discs.

Sim Sarak, director general of administration at the ministry, said as soon as King Norodom Sihanouk has signed the law, the ministry will spring into action to eradicate fakes.

“Three or four days after the King signs the law, we will begin a six-month enforcement period,” Sim Sarak said. “The ministry will organize a seminar on how to enforce the law, where we will invite officials from customs and from all provinces and ministries and let them know, from now on, please stop the violation of copyrights.”

“The government doesn’t want to give the outlaws any more time to earn money,” Sim Sarak added.

But despite this approach, some still worry that the copyright law is unrealistic—both for retailers and for the government. Chy Sila gives the example of Singapore, long a signatory of copyright legislation, but still plagued by bootleg music and films.

“The government in Singapore is very strict, and has large fines for people selling fake CDs,” he explained. “But people still do it.”

Market vendor Leng Sarith agreed that pirated discs won’t be easy to eliminate: “I don’t want to sell copied CDs and VCDs now we have this law, but if I don’t sell them, other people will.”

“I want my shop to be legal,” Chy Sila said. “But it’s going to be difficult.”

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