Taking advantage of your cell phone’s long-distance rates, you surprise your grandmother in Nova Scotia by calling on the morning of her 83rd birthday. You crank up the soundtrack to Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. You order three months worth of Lipitor from a legitimate Canadian pharmacy. With the help of Classmates.com and a bottle of Chilean wine, you send a rambling e-mail to the cute girl you had a crush on in 8th-grade algebra.
Along the way, no matter who you are, information technologies drag you farther and farther into the “digital lifestyle” that advertisers have trumpeted for decades. With each passing day, you spend more time online, as do your family and friends. Your words, images, sounds, and even your life savings are transformed into binary bits of information.
We are just beginning to understand the implications of our global dependence on digital technologies. Strategists at the National Security Agency fear a crippling cyber-attack on our national infrastructure. The French philosopher Paul Virilio warns of an inevitable technological accident that would strike everywhere at once.
These are big ideas. But squeezing my way through the crowds in Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar in Thailand, I am not interested in French philosophy or information warfare. Turning a corner, I spy the digital cornucopia of PC computer games that I have been seeking. Binders of computer disks occupy every square inch of the merchant’s table, and he gestures for me to sit down and scan his inventory. For just $5 or less, I can grab the hottest new titles, from Oblivion to 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Not far from the night market, an air-conditioned mall anchored by an Office Depot and the official Sony store is also home to several well-stocked software shops that sell compact discs for 100 baht ($2.50). DVDs fetch twice as much. In most cases, the actual content is completely unrelated to the price. The high-end application Autodesk 3D Studio Max (US retail: $3,495) costs the same as the critically panned Soldier Elite (US retail: $19.99).
When you think about it, this makes sense. From the merchant’s perspective, it requires the same amount of time and money to duplicate a high-end graphics program as a low-end collection of clip-art.
When tourists encounter these software stores for the first time, we are instantly possessed by insidious “buffet logic.” We gorge ourselves on titles that we would ignore back home. Battlefield Granada? Laundromat Tycoon? Sim Stevedore? Must. Buy. Them. All.
But bit-hungry tourists are only a small sliver of the market. The real target is Thailand’s growing middle class. Citizens of all ages visit these shops. Riding a songthaew across town, I encountered a young monk, clad in orange robes, who was carefully reading the system requirements of a pirated PC game he had just purchased.
When Thai youth enter the shops, they are more restrained than tourists. The digital buffet is less amazing when the average per-capita income is approximately $2,000. So they dine on different dishes, engaged in targeted, need-based purchases. A woman who is starting a small business might buy a copy of Microsoft Excel. Aspiring filmmakers purchase Adobe Premiere, while programmers gravitate toward Microsoft Visual C++.
Educational software and reference books are extremely popular. In one store, I discovered the Oxford English Dictionary, a digital collection of all the Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) study guides, multimedia versions of introductory college courses on organic chemistry, molecular cell biology, nuclear medicine, and radiology, several preparation disks for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), several home medical encyclopedias, and the Cerefy Atlas of Brain Anatomy.
Some readers might be disgusted by this blatant disregard for intellectual-property rights. Others might secretly wish that they could buy games and movies at these prices.
Is piracy in Thailand illegal? Beyond a doubt.
Is piracy in Thailand damaging leading software companies? It depends on who you ask. Industry-affiliated think tanks estimate that illicit software is responsible for $800 million in lost revenue. Others suggest that those figures rely on faulty metrics. Most Thai citizens who buy bootleg copies of high-end software applications could never have purchased the products in the first place.
Is piracy in Thailand ethical? Maybe it depends on who you are.
Foreign visitors who stuff their luggage with as many games and DVDs as they can carry are on shaky ethical ground. They are breaking laws in more than one nation, and they face steep fines if caught. But what about local consumers? Thai entrepreneurs, programmers, and artists face an incredibly uneven playing field as they struggle to carve out a meaningful place in the global economy. For these knowledge workers, access to the tools of digital production is a crucial lifeline — a chance to be competitive.
Imagine that you are a 26-year-old college graduate who dreams of becoming a 3-D animator. Employed as an intermediate programmer in the branch office of a transnational corporation, you earn eight times less than your counterparts in the United States. You’ve used most of your savings to build a decent machine out of third-party components. In order to have any hope of landing an animation job, you must practice using high-end software that costs almost twice your annual income.
Sitting in front of you is a completely functional copy that costs less than a McDonald’s Happy Meal.
What would you do?