China to Temporarily Stop Bootlegging

Don’t get excited, it’s not because of anything ethical.

In China, embarrassments are usually hidden from sight when the world comes visiting, and that is what has happened to a large supply of bootleg DVDs and CDs as Shanghai prepares for the World Expo, which is expected to attract 70 million visitors.

A few weeks ago, government inspectors fanned out across the city and ordered shops selling pirated music and movies to stash away their illegal goods during the expo, a six-month extravaganza that opens May 1.

So let me see if I’m understanding this correctly. In China, government inspectors don’t prosecute you if you HAVE bootlegs, but may Mao have mercy on your soul if you sell it to a Westerner.

But this is China. Surely there is a caveat of some kind here…

But shop owners found a novel way to comply — they simply chopped their stores in half.

In a remarkable display of uniformity, nearly every DVD shop in central Shanghai has built a partition that divides the store into two sections: one that sells legal DVDs (often films no one is interested in buying), and a hidden one that sells the illegal titles that everyone wants — Hollywood blockbusters like “Avatar” (for a dollar), Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and even Lady Gaga’s latest CD “The Fame.”

I’m going to resist the urge to get in a few swipes at Avatar and Lady Gaga, so let’s just focus on the “hidden sections.” First of all, how does that work? Is it a closet in the back? Do you have to say “Open sesame chicken” and a door will open?

And secondly, and I think more importantly, the point of a hidden room is supposed to be that it’s… hidden. And not, you know, made public by The New York Times.

Which is funny, because one storeowner had no problem telling the Times what he was up to. In fact, in a scene taken right out of a stereotypical spy movie, the clerks gladly told a visitor about the hidden bootlegs, but…

[W]hen the same visitor returned, identified himself as a journalist and asked the same question, the clerks pretended there were no secret rooms.

“I don’t know about the existence of that small room,” a clerk at Movie World said last week. Pressed, she said: “I’m not the boss.”

Of course, experts in intellectual property rights don’t actually believe that China really cares about cracking down on bootlegs. In fact, it’s possible Chinese officials were encouraging stores to build secret rooms, a charge that one government official vehemently denies.

“That is impossible,” says Zhou Weimin, director of the city’s cultural market administrative enforcement team. “No inspector dares to say that to the store operator. Hinting like that is definitely illegal.”

Again, the hinting is illegal, while the vending… not so much.