One of the unfortunate consequences of decades of military rule in Myanmar is the staggering number of ancient law codes still on the books. Many of these laws date back to the colonial era and some even to the 19th Century. A massive task of the transition is the repeal and amendment of these laws that have no place in 21st Century society. One of these laws is the 1914 Copyright Act, which is still Myanmar’s main code of law that covers Intellectual Property rights.
An amendment of the law has been in the works since at least 2015 with numerous international bodies contributing to the dialogue, including PEN International. A draft of the law has now been prepared and is apparently working its way through the lower and upper houses of parliament with the bizarre title of Literature and Art Copyright Law.
Ignoring the peculiar specifics of the title, this law is much needed for writers in and outside of Myanmar. Just take a look at any of the pallet bookstalls on Pansodan Road and 37th Street and you will see a horde of photocopied titles from Western writers. One of the most profitable bookshops in Yangon, along Bogkyoke Aung San Road, sells nothing but photocopied books. For Myanmar writers, protection, in the absence of the law, has resulted in creative alternatives.
ISBN’s are still a novelty in Myanmar. Before the transition, they could only be bought by a single seller authorised by the Ministry of Information. The codes themselves are ineffective as most bookshops lack a bar scanner and keep a track of their sales by writing them down in a ledger. Instead, some writers are now using them as a copyright mark. If their book contains an ISBN then it is a true copy, without it, it’s a fake.
It will be sometime before this draft becomes law and even then, with a lack of specialists in IP law in the NLD government, it is likely the law will fall short of what is needed (and here’s hoping the process and penalties for copyright infringement are not all written in favour of the accuser, such as the 2013 Telecommunications Act, where anybody can be accused and will be arrested, guilty or not.)
Whilst the law is being debated, it would be great to see more copyright awareness among the literary community. Publishers have re-issued editions of translations and novels without informing the original writers, and even when the writers are aware of reprints, some are indifferent. Most writers in Myanmar have never seen a contract that covers rights and permissions, and if and when they do, the language used is going to be a nightmare. I know from negotiating my own contract with Penguin, how complicated it is. The terminology, the various formats, the lengths and durations, the percentages, the penalties and constraints.
In the UK we are lucky. Independent organisations like the Society of Authors offer a free consultation on contracts and will advise on dubious clauses. Writers with agents will have some-one with experience to explain and guide. In Myanmar it will be up to the bigger literary organisations, like PEN Myanmar and the Myanmar Writers Association to protect writers and educate publishers and journals on how all can benefit from a robust but fair interpretation of copyright protection.
Image credit at Wikihow