Pirated CDs and DVDs for sale

A decade of anti-piracy advocacy by international organizations and the creation of Bolivia’s National Intellectual Property Service (SENAPI) in 1999 has shown no change in piracy levels. In Bolivia, the US has pursued a dogmatic approach to spreading an intellectual property mindset closer to that already held in many parts of the West, by promoting the idea that media sold by illegal distributors is “wrong” and creating fear of being caught downloading or selling pirated media.

We may gain some sense of Bolivian attitudes towards intellectual property by looking at the perspective of a Bolivian publisher. Interviewed in 2009, Mauricio Souza, editor at Plural Editores in La Paz, Bolivia, describes his business:

“With our collection of about one hundred poetry books, we can safely say that Plural Editores has published all Bolivian poetry. Of course, it’s a genre that attracts few readers…Nevertheless, we feel strongly about publishing young Bolivian poets. Their work is so expressive. There are no collective literary movements like there used to be.”

“Most of the time, it takes six or seven years to print a title. Even then, the largest buyers are often North American libraries,” Souza continues. Even so, he does not object to piracy. “If there were no counterfeiting, only a small elite would have access to these works. Actually, I am happy when I find a pirated Plural book at a bookshop. It is cheaper for readers.”

Since opening for business in 1987, Plural Editores has managed to operate under the constraints of the country’s economic realities. In 2011, an estimated 51.3% of Bolivians were living on less than $2 per day. Media piracy has been the norm in Bolivia for years, as US officials at the La Paz embassy in 2008 lamented: “vendors operate with no fear of punishment” and anti-counterfeiting laws were not enforced. Pirated films were sold for 10 bolivianos apiece, whereas “authentic” films were more than double the price. In 2006 the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) reported that Bolivia had a 90% piracy level for records and music and 80% for software.

Among the major findings of a three year independent study Media Piracy in Emerging Economies (which includes case studies of Bolivia, South Africa, India, Russia, Brazil, and Mexico) are the observations that anti-piracy education has failed and enforcement has not worked. A brief view of the history of the Bolivian recording industry shows that major record labels in the 1990′s, including EMI Music, BMG, Warner Music, Universal Music, Sony Music, Leader Music, and Santa Fe Records were making some profits, but a decade later the only major record label remaining was the Bolivian label Discolandia.

Even on a broader scale in Latin America, the The Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean known as ALBA shows an understanding of piracy in the context of poverty. ALBA is signed by eight countries including Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and recognizes that intellectual property rights has historically been used by countries further North to benefit its own media industry at the expense of poorer Latin American countries.

“The international regime of intellectual property is strategically positioned to accentuate the imbalance. The system protects the strongest countries while leaving unprotected the areas in which the poorer countries of the South have a real advantage: the genetic biodiversity of their territories and the ancient knowledge of indigenous and farming communities.”

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In contrast, the US government has refused to accept the possibility of an alternative system of rights even while acknowledging the hopelessness of creating an atmosphere of respect for its own intellectual property rights mindset in Bolivia.

A 2008 cable from the US embassy in La Paz is one of several in the WikiLeaks Cablegate release discussing media piracy in Bolivia. Embassy officials met with Bolivian movie producer Roberto Calasich, who had found an alternative way of distributing his movies to the public. Calasich was able to make his own copies of his videos and sell them to the National Federation of Audio and Video Merchants, “a loosely-organized union of Bolivian media pirates,” for 1 boliviano (13 US cents) per copy. The Federation sold the videos for the usual price of pirated films: 10 bolvianos. The cable notes that “through its network of vendors…he is able to take advantage of the Federation’s far-flung distribution network, and the product sells for the usual street price, therefore avoiding being undercut by “pirated” videos.”

It is clear that in talks with Bolivians about piracy, the underlying concern is the US market: “Even if Federation members grow to appreciate the Bolivian movie industry, it is not likely that they will cease stealing from U.S. intellectual property owners.”

In conclusion, US officials stated, “Embassy La Paz does not see a way to cooperate with Calasich on his goal of normalizing piracy, as we informed him during our meeting…Hopefully we will be able to provide better options than “legalizing” piracy.”

So the US officials in La Paz rejected a potentially viable alternative to their own distribution model outright. Instead, they continued with their campaign to fund and train SENAPI and publicize their own system of intellectual property. In fact, a 16000 USD budget was requested for the training and activities in 2008.

The approach taken by the US embassy in La Paz is bent on changing the mindset of the Bolivian public. Such a change would mean that Bolivians would be willing to pay media distributors astronomically higher prices for their products and would at least acknowledge that “stealing” from said distributors is “wrong.” Such a change would mean that Bolivians would value the right of the copyright holder enough to pay more for his work than otherwise obtainable through other distributors of pirated works.

Street vendors marketing pirated goods

The Media Piracy report notes that,

“Although there is widespread sympathy among [Bolivian] consumers for local artists, global media companies—and especially American companies—are viewed with distrust…research showed little or no popular concern for their loss of income, nor is there a compelling account in circulation of how those losses impact the lives of most Bolivians. ”

While the US acknowledges that Bolivia’s governing MAS party does not prioritize US concerns for intellectual property laws and enforcement, it continues to insist upon imposing its own mentality in spite of repeated failure, and with a total disregard for Bolivia’s internal norms toward intellectual property and piracy.