‘Please don’t write about this. Stop!’ Speaking is an architect in Beijing 北京, who’s been listening as I explain the subject of my article: the Chinese trade in illegally copied architecture books and magazines. Someone else asks whether I have nothing better to do: ‘You’re destroying my business plan. I was thinking of buying cheap copies and shipping them to Europe, as a way of making money.’ Can I quote him? ‘Only anonymously.’ I get the same response from everyone I talk to about the matter, with one exception.
Every architect in the Chinese capital has the phone number of a salesperson dealing in books who takes a call, at virtually any time of the day, and invariably appears at the door an hour or so later. What this type of representative offers is a sample card displaying an array of architecture magazines, monographs and catalogues containing all that is trendy, progressive and celebrated in the field of architecture. Such salespeople – who operate in Shanghai 上海, Shenzhen 深圳 and Guangzhou 广州, as well – can be just as pushy as representatives who insist on leaving sample building products for examination. ‘If at all possible, they’d be in my office every day,’ says one Chinese architect. Another is even more explicit: ‘I do not want them in my office. These practices should be forbidden.’ He’s a bit too adamant for my liking, however. His protest is no doubt the result of a need to be politically correct.
The salespeople in question offer books not only in print, but also as DVDs. Looking through one salesman’s assortment, I browse through a plastic file folder containing four DVDs of S,M,L,XL, 40 of El Croquis and five of Mark magazine – in the same way I might survey the selections at the local outlet where I buy DVD films: fast and furious and in a constant state of surprise at the number of choices. I find different movies every week. I never ask the proprietor where they come from, who selects the films or whether he thinks such a cheap price is normal. Of course I don’t, because this is a service I wouldn’t want to do without. I always discover a real gem: a John Cassavetes or Werner Herzog movie, a collection of work by Woody Allen, a Pier Paolo Pasolini film or The Flight of the Conchords. And each DVD costs less than a euro.
When I ask the woman who’s selling the books how much I’d have to pay for 40 digital issues of El Croquis, she says, ‘That would be 20 euros.’ The printed copies cost between 6 and 12 euros – Xaveer de Geyter goes for the lower amount and Rem Koolhaas tops the list – but the price also depends on how many items I want. The brand-new Density Housing Construction & Costs from the a+t Density series is available for 8 euros. When negotiating the price of a book, you haggle by pointing out imperfections: the print, not dark enough; the paper, a bit flimsy; the images, not sufficiently sharp; the page numbers, not in the right order. Such defects are a matter of course when you’re dealing with illegal copies. ‘SANAA, Siza, Sipperfield – all very, very good,’ the woman insists. I’m wondering whether she realizes what she’s selling. But it’s not really necessary, of course, for her to know the first thing about architecture.
Demand determines supply.
‘Only in China!’ she declares with pride, seeing my interest in a binder filled with Mark magazines. Images of the covers of Mark 4 through 9 grace the front of the binder, and ‘MARK SPEAKS 1’, in big letters, is on one endpaper, followed by a 200-page collection of articles. Without the advertisements. I wonder who selected these particular projects. I ask the price of a compilation of ‘the best of Mark’. She has five different annual compilations, each of which costs 8 euros. I buy several. Later I notice that none of the magazines contains ‘Letters from’ or ‘Service Area’.
‘For the development of China, this phenomenon is not all bad,’ says one architect. ‘Every architecture office has such publications. You should look at this form of piracy as a marketing tool – as a way of popularizing and promoting ideas and projects. Seen as such, it’s beneficial to the architects that are published, as these copies increase the circulation of their ideas. It’s beneficial to consumers, too, most of whom don’t care who’s making or losing money, as long as the products they buy are cheap.’ I remind him that the practice is not very pleasant for publishers and authors like me, however, for whom copyright infringement is detrimental. How would he feel if his designs were being copied illegally? ‘That’s a different story,’ he replies. ‘That happens only when people are working against the clock.’
Whether they are the upshot of pressure imposed by time or of a lack of creativity, illegal copies of buildings – another widespread Chinese phenomenon – are not a direct consequence of illegally copied books and magazines. Both are a result of little or no enforcement of laws protecting intellectual property. Almost everyone here knows what happened to the fake Ronchamp erected in Zhengzhou in the ’90s. The Fondation Le Corbusier made sure that the building was demolished in short order [see ‘Copyright or Right to Copy?’ in Mark #5]. But that was a one-off. China has an abundance of copied buildings still standing, including an entire British village and the Pentagon in the vicinity of Shanghai and, in Beijing, a metro station designed by a German architect. The architect who’s defending the existence of illegally copied magazines accuses a wellknown Chinese colleague of having duplicated a large part of Zaha Hadid’s oeuvre – ‘but only her bad projects’ – an ‘accusation’ that can be interpreted, with a bit of good will, as a commendation, a reference or a tribute. On closer inspection, the scope of the alleged excesses could be worse. The contemporary Chinese architect’s biggest problem is a lack of inspiration and originality.
The copying of books and magazines emerges from a different background, one of business and opportunism justified by so called ‘ideals’. One salesman put it to me like this: ‘In Europe, what happens to old, unsold magazines? They go back to the publisher, who destroys them. That’s the cheapest solution, but I wonder if it’s the right one. In China, we have them all – both old and new – and there’s no shortage.’ He gives me the number of the outfit that supplies him with books and magazines. I decide to call. No, I tell the supplier over the phone, he doesn’t have to bring samples of his books to my office. I don’t know exactly what I want. Is it possible to look at everything he has in stock?
I want to find out what’s on offer. One architect has told me that ‘there are dozens of sales representatives’. He explains how they operate. ‘Some work for the same company. When they arrive at my office, they’ve already selected the books they think will interest me. It has the feel of a tailor-made business. They know my taste.’ I conclude that the number of publications available must be much higher than the number these reps show to the architects they visit. The person on the phone asks whether I can drop by the next morning. When I agree, he gives me the address. If you’re envisioning illegal practices located in dismal neighbourhoods, dark alleys or abandoned industrial parks, I can assure you that this isn’t the case in Beijing. To my amazement, the supplier is almost around the corner from my apartment building, in a middle-class neighbourhood inside the second ring road. The book business – in this context, ‘publisher’ would be an exaggeration – is situated out of sight in the basement apartment of a five-floor residential block. I walk down the stairs and ring the bell. I’m accompanied by Umi, a Chinese woman who will do the talking. Umi and I have rehearsed the questions I want to ask.
A woman wearing pyjamas – at eleven in the morning – opens the door. She distributes the books from her home. Her husband, child and mother-in-law are present, but they pay little attention to us. We walk with her to ‘the office’, a playroom that currently functions as the hub of the copying network. Does she have many visitors? ‘A couple of weeks ago, an American professor was here with his students. They bought almost all the DVDs we had in stock and lots of books as well. They got a good discount.’ My eyes take in case after case of illegally copied books. I put several volumes to one side, clearly demonstrating my interest.
‘A lot of small businesses have shut down recently, but I still employ five people,’ she says proudly, as she hands me a copy of MVRDV’s KM3. ‘How much?’ I ask. ‘It’s 60 euros,’ she says. When I protest, she says, ‘But it’s a real one. The other one is a copy. You can have the copy for 23 euros.’ I see no difference between the two. ‘It’s still too much.’ When I ask for a free copy, she laughs. ‘I distribute architecture books. Some are legitimate copies printed in China, some are illegal copies and others are copies translated into Chinese.’ Who does the translating? ‘We hire an editorial committee of architecture teachers,’ she says. ‘They decide which books to translate – like this one about an architecture competition in Rotterdam.’ At home I have a handsome architecture book that I would like to give to friends – 50 copies would be ideal. Can she tell me where the books are cut, scanned, copied and bound? ‘I don’t know where these books are printed,’ she replies. ‘But we don’t take orders for 50 copies. Our minimum is 1000.’ I don’t have that many friends, I tell her. But suppose I did. How would I go about ordering 1000 copies? ‘We can arrange a meeting between you and our editorial committee. If they approve the content of your book, it would be printed and tested on the market. Popular titles are reprinted, often more than once.’
On the back of a DVD box, I read: For promotional use only; rights remain with the publisher. Along with the price: 320 euros. The woman offers it to me for a ridiculously low price. I wonder whether it matters that the price and the warning are clearly stated on the box. Even original, legally published books are sometimes available for heavily reduced prices. Aloud, I question the amount she just mentioned. ‘One of our sources is a bookseller who imports original copies,’ she patiently explains. ‘He gives us a 30 per cent discount, because he knows we will sell them. In the case of a+u, we get a 50 per cent discount for payment in advance.’ I see an original Mark that’s priced at 14 euros. She says she gets one original example of each issue, which she offers at a discount. My instincts tell me I’m looking at the goose who lays a golden egg – cut the beast open and hope for a miraculous multiplication of its precious contents.
Making a choice in this paradise of copied architecture books is not easy. I ask whether she has a list that I can mull over at home before deciding. ‘We did that before,’ she says, ‘but we haven’t followed up on it, since we have new books almost every day.’ A good sales strategy: the simultaneous creation of surplus and scarcity, interest and dependence. I gather together a stack of books and magazines and ask her to tally up my purchases. May I have a receipt? ‘No problem,’ she says. But when she fails to produce the chit and I repeat my request, she claims to have run out of sales slips. On second thought, I don’t really want to leave a trace of my visit, so I thank her for her time. We’ll be in touch. Next time we’ll meet at my house. With a plastic bag full of illegal merchandise, I leave the basement, casting my eyes right and left in search of anything vaguely suspicious, pull my hood over my head in an almost automatic gesture, and quicken my pace in the direction of the bustling crowds. Umi walks beside me, acting perfectly normal. In her hand, an illegal DVD box gleams in the bright sunlight.
‘What you’re talking about,’ says Helen Yao, ‘is an ambiguous situation in which people work in the margins of what the system allows.’ Yao is editor in chief of several international design magazines that are published under licence in Beijing and marketed legally in China. She works for IDG / Reed Business Information, a publisher that nearly has a monopoly. ‘With the exception of one French company, no other foreign publishers can legally and independently distribute their publications in China.’ Last year, one of her magazines was interior-design journal Frame. I ask whether the Chinese version is an exact copy of the original English language magazine. ‘Our editors in China develop 40 per cent of the original content,’ she says, ‘and we have a lot of freedom. If the content is good, it gets published in the English version as well.’ I ask where the illegal copies are printed. ‘Most illegal copies come out of Guangzhou, a city with a history and an important position in China’s printing industry.’ I tell her that even though I have the impression that architects see such practices as democratic, since they gain no profit themselves, the custom is disadvantageous to me, as a writer for the original version of Mark. ‘Indeed, illegal copying is unfavourable for the original authors, photographers and publishing houses. It’s not good for us, either. We pay the original publishers. When illegal publications are easily accessible, there’s no room for us to operate. This is intellectual property, and if the government doesn’t enforce the law, it damages our business. How can the traditional printing industry survive?’ It’s impossible to escape the irony of her words in a country that claims the invention of the printing press in 593 AD.
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Other Bert de Muynck | MovingCities articles in MARK Magazine:
A Letter from Beijing | #09 (Jul-Aug 07)
An interview with Ai Weiwei (CN) | FAKE Design | #12 (Feb-Mar 08)
Olympic Architecture | #14 (Jun-Jul 08)
Babel for Billionaires | #15 (Aug-Sep 08)
Mongolian Private Meadow Club by MAD | #16 (Oct-Nov 08)
Anything That Is Good Is Called Lekker | #17 (Dec-Jan 08-09)
Local Hero | An Interview with Wang Shu (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
The Importance of Slowness | Wang Hui (CN) | #19 (Apr-May 09)
Mr. Blunt | Keiichiro Sako | SAKO Architects | #20 (Jun-Jul 09)
Green and Tidy | mamostudio | #21 (Aug-Sep 09)
Learning from CCTV | An interview with Rory McGowan | #24 (Feb-March 10)
(back to movingcities writings on china page)