China’s Love of Linux Has Roots in Ancient Past

Bill Gates was recently quoted as saying, “You know what my toughest competitor is? It’s pirated software…. If you really look around, you’ll find way more pirated Windows than you’ll find open-source software. Way more.”

Gates couldn’t be more wrong. At least in China, his tough stance against piracy is backfiring. The more the Chinese government cracks down on piracy, the more appealing open source, and in particular, Linux, become.

In a knee-jerk fashion, Microsoft reacts by cutting creative licensing deals and cutting prices, assuming that the open-source movement in Asia is purely driven by cost. It’s true that the cost factor is a significant reason behind China’s obsession with Linux, but I wonder whether there is something much deeper going on. Perhaps it has less to do with Microsoft and more to do with Chinese history and culture.

Intellectual Property Counterintuitive

In his compelling book, To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense, which examines the development of intellectual property law in Chinese civilization, William P. Alford argues that according to ancient Chinese history and culture, copying is not traditionally seen as a “bad” thing. To copy someone’s work is considered a compliment. Therefore, the very idea of copyright is counterintuitive to the Chinese.

According to Alford, even though the Chinese are credited with some of the world’s greatest contributions, from paper to ink, they have never been concerned with protecting the ideas that are created by putting ink to paper.

Patents, trademarks and copyrights are Western concepts. He argues that in imperial China, there was no indigenous effort to develop a significant body of intellectual property law, even after they invented printing, until Western influences introduced the concept to China at the turn of the twentieth century. Why? For the answer, we might have to turn to Confucius.

At the core of traditional Chinese culture is the connection to a shared past, and the importance of the family. Relationships between ruler and subject, father and son, and husband and wife are enduring and paramount. Connecting to the past provides insight into moral responsibility in the present.

Imperial Chinese Legal System

Confucius said “Lead the people with governmental measures and regulate them by law and punishments, and they will avoid wrongdoing, but will have no sense of honor and shame. Lead them by virtue and regulate them by the rules of propriety and they will have a sense of shame and, moreover, set themselves right.”

Alford interprets this to mean that the wisdom of the past should guide the leaders of the present.

The imperial Chinese legal system derived its legitimacy by honoring the morality of the past. In this context, only a ruler with the power of the past can restrict access to or exercise control over someone’s ideas. Furthermore, as Confucius said, “I transmit rather than create.”

Wise rulers transmit the wisdom of the ages. Sharing that wisdom allows us to transform ourselves in the present. This concept is essential in classic Chinese poetry and literature.

Chinese Artists Honor the Past

Alford argues that Chinese artists demonstrate a lineage similar to the succession of Confucian philosophers handing down his wisdom. He quotes Chinese painter Wu Li as saying “to paint without taking the masters as one’s basis is like playing chess on an empty chessboard.”

In other words, it is honorable for artists to use the past to shape how they express their own vision. Copying the work of others bears honor to the quality of that work, and helps transform that work into original ideas in the present. So the replication of ideas that are not your own does not have the negative connotation that it does in Western cultures.

If understanding that interaction with the past is integral to Chinese culture helps explain why the notion of copyright is counterintuitive, consider also the Confucian attitude toward commerce, which says that true scholars let the world discover their work, and real artists create for higher reasons than mere profit.

Because everything comes from nature, humans can only imitate. How can they exclude others from something that belongs to their common past?

China’s Love Affair with Linux

That gets us back to the Chinese love affair with Linux. Anyone doing business in other countries knows the importance of understanding the culture before setting up shop. Remember when GM had trouble selling the Chevy Nova in South America until it realized that “no va” in Spanish means “no go”?

Misunderstandings cause damaged reputations and can poison relationships. When Microsoft appears to be heavy-handed by cracking down on software piracy and demanding protection for its intellectual property, it goes against the traditional cultural values in China.

If Alford is right, the real reason why the Chinese government and software industry are so supportive of Linux could be because Linux is, instinctively, much more in tune with ancient Chinese philosophy. It is a better fit for their historical perspective on intellectual property. It is more culturally relevant. By joining the WTO, China agreed to put an end to software piracy, but enforcement is proving to be very difficult. It runs against the grain.

The Art of Software War

The ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, in his book The Art of War, said “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”

It is a mistake for Microsoft to assume that its toughest competitor is piracy. Maybe it’s not even Linux or open source. Microsoft’s challenge in China is how to change a mindset that’s been ingrained through thousands of years of a great ancient civilization.

Now that’s a tough fight to win.

Phil Albert, a LinuxInsider columnist, is a patent attorney and partner with the San Francisco office of the intellectual property law firm Townsend and Townsend and Crew LLP.

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