Along Yangon’s Pansodan Street toward Merchant Road, located among the heritage Victorian buildings of colonial-era Rangoon, a pirated book market thrives. The books lining the shelves of street-side stalls, or inside adjacent bookstores, give the appearance of a booming business, featuring longtime bestsellers from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Freedom from Fear and Letters from Burma to George Orwell’s Burmese Days. But a closer inspection reveals that these are photocopied versions of the originals being sold for a fraction of the price.
As Myanmar’s new copyright law comes into effect this year, pirated books will likely begin to disappear from the bargain shelves, and many bookstores will feel the pinch. Urged on by publishers in the country, the government has begun to hold panel discussions on the new laws. Writers – many disgruntled by past copyright infringements – have also begun to highlight copyright issues through campaigns. But there is more to this story than meets the eye. Pirated books have seen Myanmar through periods of media suppression, they help the public learn about sensitive topics like the Rohingya crisis, and, some might argue, they add value to the economy.
Pirates versus publishers
Book piracy, the unauthorised use or reproduction of another’s work, is a term that evokes maritime theft and plunder. The industry dates back to 16th-century England and 17th-century Europe. In Myanmar, as in many emerging economies, pirated books are commonplace.
But over the years Myanmar’s book pirates have faced increasing opposition from Myanmar’s publishing industry. Publishers like Myo Aung, who sells imported books, have been asking the government to adopt modern intellectual-property legislation for the last ten years. Myanmar did not sign the 1886 Berne Convention – an international agreement governing copyright, and the Burma Copyright Act of 1914, conceived prior to the advent of the internet and applicable only to domestically produced literary works, has been ineffective.
Publishers claim that their industry faces structural challenges, such as rising rents and poor logistics and distribution systems. In 2019, a new copyright law was adopted along with patent, trademark and industrial-design laws to bring Myanmar into a new age of intellectual property rights. The law will impact approximately 2,822 registered publishing businesses in Myanmar. Still, according to the new law, Myanmar’s President Win Myint must announce the date of enforcement for the law to be applicable. “I told the government not to wait [to implement the law]. The earliest date possible is good for everyone,” said Myo Aung, owner of Pyi Zone Publishing House in Yangon.
Myo Aung believes there are roughly 100 unregistered book publishers still operating in Yangon, where the country’s publishing industry is located. Looming enforcement has sent shockwaves through Yangon’s pirated-book market to nearby streets where pirated DVDs and CDs can be found. The new law extends to audiovisual, film, architectural and choreographic works, among others.
Piracy during dictatorship
Parallel to Pansodan Street, just one block east on Merchant Road, is 37th Street. This is where Ko Harry Books, Bagan Book House and OS Bookshop are located. It is also home to the Old Book Market that sells secondhand children’s books and novels in English and Burmese languages, buried alongside pirated nonfiction books on Burma’s turbulent political history.
Following the 1962 military coup, many books were banned outright by the new regime and freedom of speech was severely restricted. As a result, many people smuggled books into the country, photocopied them and sold them clandestinely. At the time, piracy was critical for spreading new ideas. “In the past, booksellers would hide banned books. You needed to request the book. He would look at you to determine whether he should sell it to you or not,” said Myo Myo, a Yangon-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal. “If the authorities knew he was selling banned books he could be detained,” she added.
It was only after the National League for Democracy’s 2012 by-election victory that restrictions on media and censorship were relaxed. Gradually, books on political affairs were displayed openly, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s own books and the numerous biographies written about her.
U Htay Aung runs Bagan Book House, established in 1976 by his father as the preeminent destination for used English-language books. But secondhand books were difficult to bring into the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and now very few used books are on display inside. Instead, the walls and shelves are covered instead with pirated books. Htay Aung said he knew he risked arrest and interrogation by police and security agents in the past for carrying certain titles on Myanmar. Today, he carries on his family’s tradition of selling a curated selection of low-cost used and pirated books. It is still the go-to bookshop downtown for locals, foreigners and tourists looking for cheap reads in English.
Bagan Book House also carries books on sensitive topics like the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crises in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states. These books are flaunted next to more academic texts that also would have been banned before 2012, because they are critical of the role of Myanmar’s military in society and politics. In today’s Myanmar, the most risky books are those about the Rohingya community, against whom the Myanmar military carried out what it called “clearance operations”, but which the United Nations described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
Pirated copies of Myanmar’s ‘Rohingya’ Conflict (2018), The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide (2016), and Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ (2017) are available in English. But they are unlikely to have Burmese translations any time soon, since translations may cause offence to nationalists and Buddhist monks, many of whom reject the name ‘Rohingya’ and – imputing foreignness to this community – use the appellation ‘Bengali’ instead.
The disgruntled author
Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner has spent the last 40 years reporting and writing about Myanmar. Walking down Pansodan Street one day, he spotted pirated versions of his books on Myanmar, along with their unofficial Burmese translations on bestseller shelves. They ranged in price from MMK 5,000 to 10,000 (USD 3.50 to 7) while the original copies can cost between USD 25 to 45 at two of the country’s most popular book chains, Innwa Books and Myanmar Book Centre.
Lintner told me, “I haven’t been paid even one kyat for any of the altogether seven books which were translated into Burmese with [or] without permission from me or the original publisher.” He added, “Some Myanmar publishers have asked me for permission to translate books, but I have to explain to them that they can’t ask me for permission to do that. They have to ask the publishers.”
To challenge piracy in Myanmar’s book publishing industry, author and historian Thant Myint U had a legal notice published in the state-run Kyemon daily and shared on his Facebook wall. He requested bookstores and stalls to no longer carry pirated versions of his books. As a result, his most recent work, The Hidden History of Burma, is not displayed on the bestseller shelves at Yangon’s book shops and stalls that sell pirated books. Since it was released in late 2019, it has only been possible to purchase an original copy at the Myanmar Book Centre, located on Merchant Road one block west of Pansodan Street – rather than east where pirated copies of his books were once sold openly.
Thant’s three previous books – including his bestselling historical memoir The River of Lost Footsteps (2006) – were pulled from bestseller shelves last year as the notice went out. “I’m no longer allowed to sell Thant Myint U books,” Htay Aung said as he reached behind a rack of other bestselling pirated books on Suu Kyi to show me a stash of copies of The Hidden History of Burma.
These pirated books are now hidden away and only sold to customers who really want to read the book but don’t have enough money to pay MMK 35,000 (USD 24) Myanmar Book Center. Htay Aung only charges MMK 7000 (USD 5) for this book and MMK 5000 (USD 3.50) for each of Myint U’s previous three books.
In the past, authors have had no legal recourse to combat copyright infringement. Myint U is the first author to challenge book piracy and have bookstore owners pull pirated copies from shelves. Some pirated books stalls along Pansodan Street are even located inside entranceways to the heritage buildings that Yangon Heritage Trust, a group founded by Myint U that works to preserve the city’s colonial-era architecture, has been fighting to protect from demolition or neglect. The trust’s office, ironically, is one block south of the pirated book market on Pansodan Street.
Pirated books banned under the military regime are starting to disappear off shelves as word of the 2019 copyright law reaches the pirated book market. This has many bookstore owners like Htay Aung and Khin Maung Tin confused. Skeptics like Myo Myo, on the other hand, believe enforcement of the copyright law won’t happen for many years, likely after the 2025 parliamentary election.
“We obey the law. In a few years the copied books may disappear,” said Khin Maung Tin from Ar Yone Thit Bookshop – a bookstore in Yangon that sells mainly pirated English language textbooks and novels for students and foreigners. “Customers may not be able to afford expensive books. Nobody knows what will happen in the future. [This law] may be good or bad.”
According to the new copyright law, those caught selling pirated works will be imprisoned for at least one year with a fine of MMK 1 million (approximately USD 700). Repeat offenders will be subject to up to ten years of imprisonment and a fine of MMK 10 million (approximately USD 7000). Says Myo Myo, “After 2012, people have begun to talk about copyright. Nowadays these voices are louder. In the future, most people in Myanmar [must] follow and obey the law.”
But getting rid of pirated books may be harder than imagined. Pirated books are available for purchase in all bookstores in Myanmar, not only in the pirated book shops and stalls of downtown Yangon. In fact, Innwa Books and Myanmar Book Centre, too, sell pirated books alongside originals. For most book buyers, it’s hard to tell the difference. So, the retailers put up notices that read: “English books from these shelves are not original or authentic books.” When asked about this, staff at both stores would not comment.
The economics of piracy
With free primary education and an adult literacy rate of approximately 76 percent, Myanmar has a significant appetite for reading. However, despite this, many people may not be able to afford to pay the full listed price for a book like The Hidden History of Burma;the purchase would represent about 2 percent of the average annual income in Myanmar (USD 1325).
This is unrealistic given that the average Burmese household spends only 3 percent of total expenditure on entertainment. Myanmar is not alone in this; the inability to afford book prices set in advanced economies is a problem in other developing countries as well, including India, Brazil and South Africa.
As the authors of Media Piracy in Emerging Economies (2011) suggest, specific industries may incur losses as a result of piracy, but these are not necessarily losses to the national economy. Piracy of domestic goods is “a transfer of income, not a loss. Money saved by consumers or businesses on CDs, DVDs, or software will not disappear but rather be spent on other things—housing, food, other entertainment, other business expenses, and so on.”
Meanwhile, the 2019 copyright law will almost definitely affect the revenue stream of book retailers. Their revenues have continually decreased since the reforms to Myanmar’s telecommunications sector began to take effect in 2013, allowing for the spread of cheap SIM cards and data plans. Myanmar’s internet penetration rate increased from approximately one percent to 31 percent between 2011 and 2017, while in the same period mobile subscriptions per 100 inhabitants increased from 2.4 to 90.
This means that more people are now likely to use the internet to read books – where many books are now available, for free, online. Recognising this trend, Myanmar’s biggest wireless carrier created an ebook app with book prices between MMK 500 and 800 kyat (35 to 56 US cents). Like book pirates, they too hope to capitalise on high demand for books and the unaffordability of original books.
Unfortunately, this is a perspective that is often overlooked by publishers in Myanmar. “In this business it’s important to be honest,” said Myo Aung. “You must ask permission and acquire the rights to publish a book. If you’re caught pirating, please apologise.”