Does art need protection in digital age?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2012, 12:00am


If you owned a convenience store and someone broke in and stole a 24-pack of soft drinks, you would contact the police and report the theft. Yet, say you directed a new film. What would happen if someone made a copy of your film, and shared it with other hundreds of thousands of netizens on the web? What would you say to police then?

Most of us know that sharing a movie, song or book online is illegal. Yet when asked to describe precisely what is wrong about it, many people would be left scratching their heads in confusion.

Some people might be unclear because, unlike the cans of soft drink, which can be held in your hands, the film, song or book, is not a real thing - often it's just a computer file, that you can't touch in any physical form. Others would struggle to define which acts are illegal. Is playing a pirate DVD of the film at home with friends? What if they discuss the plot with someone else?

This week, we look at the meaning of intellectual property, copyrights, and the recent rise in popularity of derivative arts.

Intellectual property

When you invent or create something, it becomes your intellectual property. The

most common type of intellectual property is art work. For example, feature films and books are the intellectual property of their directors and authors; songs and painting are the intellectual property of their writers and painters. These are products of art - and ways of people expressing themselves.

Symbols and catch phrases

The term 'intellectual property' covers more than simply art work; it could include something as simple as a symbol. For example, the sportswear brand Nike is known for its swoosh, and technology company Apple owns the apple logo with its bite mark. But that doesn't mean you are forever banned from drawing swooshes and apples.

As long as you don't draw a very similar version of them - close enough to remind people of those two brands - and sell them for profit, you can draw as many as you want.

Catchphrases, such as advertising slogans, are also called intellectual property. For example, 'Just do it' belongs to part of the Nike advertising campaign. You can still say it as many times as you want. But if you owned a sports shoe company, and chose to use the same slogan in your advertisements, you might want to reconsider.


Inventions are also a form of intellectual property, and can vary from a new mobile phone to the genetically-modified sweetcorn you ate last night.

One of the most-talked-about subjects these days is software code. Programmers and engineers invent computer programmes and operation platforms using software codes. These codes are the intellectual property of the creators, and should not be used without the owner's permission.

Google lost a lawsuit only last week for using the software code belonging to Oracle, another American IT company, when developing its mobile phone platform, Android.


Intellectual property applies to things such as musical, literary or artistic works or designs that someone has created. Laws exist that give the person creating that work special rights.

People can stop people stealing the original things they create, such as a pop song, or a book, or painting, by using one type of intellectual property protection called copyright laws. Copyright gives a person the exclusive rights to the use of their creation. But a copyright is valid only for a set period of time. It usually expires some years after the creator has died, but the timescale depends on the copyright law of each country. In Hong Kong, copyright expires 50 years after the creator dies.

Copyright is only one of the rights that protect intellectual property. Others include trademarks, patents and industrial designs that focus more on business rights. Copyrights protect mainly the art and design industry rights.

In Hong Kong, copyrights are automatically given to creators. But some people wonder why talking about knowledge gained from a textbook or discussing a film's plot does not infringe copyrights. That's because copyright does not protect an idea or knowledge: it concerns only the way it is expressed. So if you copy this article, and give away a million copies of it at some MTR station today after school, you could face charges of violating the copyright law.

Yet if you discuss this article with your classmates, you will gain knowledge - and can avoid paying fines and facing a prison sentence!

The start of copyright war in Hong Kong - Kuso

The Japanese word, kuso, originally meant 'bad things'. But in the world of the internet, the word has another meaning, and is used to describe an internet culture in East Asia.

The culture first emerged in Japan, when people posted poor-quality games online to make fun of how bad they were. Kuso has spread to Taiwan and Hong Kong. Taiwanse netizens took kuso to another level: instead of games, they posted anything, as long as it was likely to be amusing to people using internet forums. For example, they posted sarcastic comments in response to serious matters. Their aim was to generate a big laugh out of a serious social matter.

The culture later spread to Hong Kong, and became the starting point of a copyright war.

Derivative art / parody

Kuso soon nurtured a community for derivative work - a form of arts created in reference to an original piece of art work. At first, Taiwanese netizens started blending fictional characters from different comics and mangas to create their own content. When the culture hit Hong Kong, local netizens took this idea further to merge real-life people with advertisements and posters, and rewrite lyrics of songs to satirise celebrities and politicians.

Not only does the derivative art culture emerge as a new form of art, it turns politics into something more engaging. Posters created using photoshop are often circulated on internet forums and Facebook. Their light-hearted nature draws people into finding out the story behind each piece of art.

Yet not everyone is happy about this rising force of community art. Because derivative work usually carries a fair amount of the original version, copyright has always been a controversial issue. Also, although the original art is not the focus of the satire, some argue it will still be given a bad image if used by derivative artists.

Did you know ...

Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2011

There was public outcry two weeks ago over the controversial amendment to Hong Kong's copyright bill. It will extend infringement rules to the web, and make it an offence to produce derivative works for profit. Critics said it threatens creativity and freedom of expression. Internet activists called the amendment the 'Article 23 of the internet' - comparing it to the much criticised national security law shelved in 2003. They said it would criminalise derivative works - a film, painting or piece of music based on one or more pre-existing work of art. They wanted derivate work to be exempt. Pro-government lawmakers and pan-democrats were hesitant about passing the amendment. The government has postponed debate to allow more discussion.