by Thu Van
Eight years ago, for my college graduation thesis, I chose to write about the World Trade Organisation's Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and its impacts on developing countries.
Briefly, while the agreement requires all WTO member states to establish minimum standards of legal protection and enforcement for a number of different forms of intellectual property rights (IPRs), developing countries were arguing that the agreement would be unhelpful or even harmful to their own interests, making, for instance, medicines, agricultural inputs and foreign-owned technologies more expensive.
The same year, the Vietnamese Civil Code took effect, and the Law on Intellectual Property, which codified the Vietnamese Government's regulations on intellectual property, came into force.
When I defended my thesis, I was asked by a member of the Examining Board: "Do you think developing countries are being reasonable in asking for lower IPR protection standards?"
My answer was no.
I explained: "Strong IPR protection would stimulate local innovation and creativity, and only this can help developing countries become wealthier and stronger."
I still hold the same view, but sadly, eight years on, Viet Nam does not seem to have gotten very far from its starting point in IPR protection.
Many Vietnamese authors whose works are used in full in school textbooks have said they've never been asked for permission or paid any copyright fees. The textbooks are printed by the Education Publishing House, which, proudly announces itself as "Viet Nam's leading education publisher since…"
Poet Do Trung Quan said that his poem Que huong (Homeland) has been printed in a Grade 3 textbook for 20 years, but his permission was never sought. In fact, far less being paid any copyright fee, he has never received even a letter of thanks.
"I'm glad that my works are printed in the textbooks, but I wish the Education Publishing House would follow the copyright law. They just need to get our consent before printing our works. I don't even need the money."
"Worse, they even printed one sentence of the poem wrongly!" he exclaimed.
Nguyen Quang Thieu, vice chairman of the Viet Nam Writers' Association, did not know for a long time that his poem Tieng vong (The Echo) had been printed in a Grade 5 textbook.
Do Han, deputy director of the Viet Nam Literature Copyright Centre (VLCC), told the Nguoi lao dong (The Labourer) newspaper that the works of about 500 writers had been used in school textbooks. Some of them had been paid an unjustifiable amount of money, while most of the rest had received next to nothing or nothing.
Dang Hien, a member of Viet Nam Writers' Association, joked that his works were printed in Literature textbooks for a decade, but what he received was just enough to buy a bowl of pho - VND100,000 (US$4.5).
Poet Tran Dang Khoa said he was disappointed whenever any one talks about the copyright issue.
"I've never asked the Education Publishing House about copyright for my works, maybe because I've become used to the messy situation," he said.
"The publishing house, obviously, is a big name in Viet Nam and holds exclusive rights to publishing school textbooks, but I find it strange that they intentionally ignore the copyright issue."
Well, I find something even more strange.
A deputy of the National Assembly, Nguyen Minh Thuyet, has actually written an article defending the publishing house.
Thuyet argues that school textbooks are used for social purposes and although they are sold to students, they are done so in public interest, not for the purpose of making a profit.
He even says that if the Education Publishing House is to pay copyright fee to authors, the prices of all the textbooks would be much higher.
"The public, or the students, would have to suffer from such a thing, and it's against the spirit of the Law on Intellectual Property, which is also to protect public benefit," he argues.
It seems to have escaped the attention of the NA deputy that the intellectual property law is designed, first and foremost, to protect the legal and economic rights of authors or inventors of any work.
We could even say that the spirit of the law is to encourage innovation and creativity, which any society needs to develop.
We can talk about public benefit if the textbooks are given free to students - but in Viet Nam, students still have to buy them, and they still have to pay tuition fees.
Lawyer Nguyen Van Nam said there were ways to ensure both public benefit and authors' copyright, but there was no justification for what the Education Publishing House is doing.
"They can pay a reasonable amount in copyright fees for works used in school textbooks, something not too high, but not so low that it discourages creativity. This fee can be calculated by consulting experts and educators, based on a balance between benefits for authors, buyers and other stakeholders," he said.
I think it's time we stop getting used to ignoring the law and start getting used to following it properly.
We can't talk about "public benefit" and ignore people's hard work and creativity.
We can't ask them to work for us for free, anymore.
And this goes beyond individuals to nations.
If developing countries want to do well, they need to stand on their own feet and hold their own in a setting where the same standards apply to everyone. — VNS