Copy watch? Copy CD? Copy Titanic VCD? Copy Leo T-shirt? Recent raids on pirate CD factories in Hong Kong haven't stemmed the flow of copied items on the streets of this and other cities in China. Lawyers refer to copyrighted stuff as 'intellectual property', despite the blatant absurdity of describing films by the likes of Jean-Claude van Damme as 'intellectual'. But few people realise that China introduced the world to the whole idea of recording and mass-producing intellectual properties, and dominated the field until recently - that's 'recently' in historical terms, meaning the past half-millennium. In China, in the year AD 150, a priest had the idea of pouring paint on to carved stone tablets. He got some beefy fellow-monks to help lift the tablets and press them down on surfaces. Smudgy reproductions of his religious texts could be just about deciphered. It was the precursor of the rubber stamp. Yes, he had invented the first provisional legislature - no, I mean, printing system. Another 250 years passed before a fellow countryman refined the technique, brewing the first ink. The reproductions looked better, but were a little rough compared to the full-colour 3000 dpi resolution of modern printing. And heaving rock pages around was hard work. A couple of centuries later, in the year 600, Chinese intellectuals discovered that certain types of wood could do the job of stones, and the first woodblock prints were laid on paper, another Chinese invention. Rumours of these remarkable discoveries spread westwards. In the year 751, there was a war in what is now called Samarkand. The Arabs took a Chinese soldier prisoner, and forced him to teach them the secret of paper-making. Soon afterwards, a Chinese scholar, wanting something to read in bed, had the idea of joining printed pages together as books. He printed a volume called The Diamond Sutra, consisting of six pages of text and one illustration, in 868. A copy survives today as the world's oldest book. In 1107, a Chinese printer used inks of different colours to make the first paper money. The next big development came from a Korean printer in 1397, who created a piece of text with letters made of melted bronze. By this time, details of printing techniques had spread to Europe, so they finally had something to put on to the paper they were now making in bulk. A German printer named Johannes Gutenberg made the first printing press, using metal letters, in 1438. Other Europeans saw the usefulness of the machine, and mass-production printing presses were running in all European countries by 1487. In 1500, the stylish Italians insisted on having their letters leaning over at an elegant 15 degrees, thus giving birth to the type which is now known as - italic. By the middle of the 1800s, inventors in the United Kingdom and the United States had produced huge, metal machines that could run off tens of thousands of newspapers or journals, and mass reproduction of text became common around the world. Copyright lawyers sprang up like a plague. Writers such as Charles Dickens had to make up ridiculous names like Chuzzlewit and Pecksniff to avoid being sued. The publishing industry flourished in China, but it took a severe blow in 1949, when communists declared intellectual ideas as evil, and books as wicked tools of the bourgeoisie. In 1950, America's Xerox Company started selling a document copying machine, which was a huge hit around the world. By 1968, more than 500,000 photocopiers were in use around the world, and fears began to be raised about the ethics of fast, cheap reproduction. In the 1970s, technological advances made book publishing easy, and Asians illegally mass-produced tens of thousands of books from the West. The main medium for music changed from impossible-to-copy vinyl to easily copied cassette tapes, and Abba became the sound of Asia. Law enforcers became involved. By 1986, the Hong Kong Government had wiped out sales of pirated books and music cassettes in the territory, an impressive achievement for an East Asian city. But the local pirates shifted their attention to other products. Between 1986 and today, they used their technological know-how to duplicate virtually every medium - video tapes, floppy disks, music CDs, computer CD-ROMs and most recently, VCDs, to be sold on street corners or in fly-by-night arcade shops. Through the 1990s, trade negotiations between the US and China stalled regularly on questions of intellectual property. China repeatedly reported that it had cracked down on pirates, but identical operations, sometimes in government-owned factories, would open shortly afterwards. At the moment, Hong Kong is also on the US 'watch' list as a rule-breaker, and the Government is energetically closing down counterfeit CD factories here to get us off. The Government typically seizes $300 million worth of pirated or counterfeit goods a year. Copying, lawyers say, has become too quick, too easy and too risk-free. You can drop a computer zip file disk containing a million words on your foot without hurting yourself - and that was definitely not true for a Chinese priest with his boulder-based printing outfit in AD 150.