If you were to look around the shops and markets on Phnom Penh’s streets, you wouldn’t know that the country has copyright laws and intellectual property rights (IPRs) that meet international standards.
In response to demands from the World Trade Organisation, the Cambodian government passed the Intellectual Property Rights law in 2003. However, you needn’t look further than your neighbourhood pharmacy or movie store to know that the laws have had little impact in the practices of the country’s importers, distributors and shop owners.
As for enforcement, the government has limited resources and, according to the country’s legal code, a specific complaint must be filed against a vendor before police can take action.
So what will a future in which copyright laws are enforced be like?
“From the perspective of local investors, they won’t be afraid that their innovations will be stolen, and thus will put more effort into local creation, research and development,” Microsoft Country Manager Pily Wong said, adding that “the local industry players will then be able to get better income from their creations”.
Moa Samnang, a novelist, said that if books written by Khmer writers not copied and sold illegally, it would encourage authors to write more, which would help enlighten a poorly educated population.
Meas Bopea, a composing manager for Rock Productions, said: “if the law is fully enforced, Cambodians will not only be more innovative in music, but in all sectors.”
Most Cambodian production companies refuse to make high-budget films due to their fears that their works will be stolen and sold illegally. Min Sitha said that producers will once again be motivated to “make better productions because they know they can make a profit”.
“From the perspective of foreign investors, it would make them comfortable to invest in the Kingdom and possibly transfer technologies and subcontract local companies,” Pily Wong said.
Before they entrust their money to entrepreneurs in Cambodia, “many investors are waiting until they see IPR law improvements,” said Mariam Arthur, CEO of Kmy films. She listed “consumer choice, new business development and more original creativity” as the likely results of improved enforcement of copyright laws.
Although the benefits of copyright laws are obvious to the people who invest their time and money in industries that rely on this legislation to make a profit, some legal experts suggest that the strict enforcement of IPRs might price-out many Cambodians from accessing technology, knowledge and entertainment.
Ros Chantrabot, a lecturer of political science and history who has been researching a book on copyright law for the past two years, explained that if Cambodian youth can’t access the most up-to-date information, they will not be “intelligent or qualified” enough to compete on the international job market.
Ros Chantrabot said his research has convinced him that greater access to information for the maximum number of Cambodians is more important in terms of development.
“I can’t afford computer software or programes at Western prices,” said Chang Mouy Seam, a junior student of law at Royal University of Law and Economic “Copyright laws will halt students, especially those from rural areas, from accessing this kind of stuff.”
Pily Wong said, however, that “by enforcing IPR laws, things may not be cheaper, but I’m sure they will become more affordable because there will be more higher-paid jobs in the market”.
“People doing legal businesses (selling genuine software) will get better income and the government will receive higher income from taxes, giving them more financial power to improve the infrastructure and environment,” he said.
It might seem like a hypothetical argument today, but in the years to come, Cambodia’s lawmakers will have to find a way to balance IPR enforcement with the ability to access information that is necessary for Cambodia’s young people to get competitive with the rest of the world youth.