Bargain hunter or international criminal? This is the situation I am mulling over as I stand here, feeling a little shabby, clutching my purchases to my side, knowing that I have been spoiled forever, that I will never want to set foot inside a full-price software emporium again. It's not something to be proud of, but I am prepared to admit this to the world: I am a partner in software piracy.
These thoughts occur to me as I prowl the aisles of the software piracy mother lode, the Golden Shopping Arcade in Hong Kong's Sham Shui Po district. All around me in the basement of this dingy, block-long urban warehouse, eager shoppers paw through the bins and tables of the densely packed stalls. From an interactive Japanese porn CD-ROM starring the intriguingly named Conchita Matsumoto to AutoCad Release 13, the eager consumers at the Golden Arcade are snapping up the wares with a bargain-basement kind of eagerness. It's like Supermarket Sweep in here - without a time limit.
This is what I have come to Asia to see: a dizzying variety of software at a price so low that air seems more expensive. Inside a stall called the Everything CD shop, a group of muscular young American men with close-cropped hair wearing shorts and Teva sandals - Sailors on leave? A band? A rugby team? - are consulting shopping lists and piling stacks of CD-ROMs into their bags. As one of them wonders aloud over the splendid possibilities of a piece called Fuckman-Interactive, another guy counts out the CDs in his hand and tells the clerk, "Two more, I need two more of these." He then ticks off the names on his list: "Let's see: Office and WordPerfect for Brad. AutoCad for Marty. Installers for the guys at the house...." I try to engage the group in conversation. "You shop here often? Neat, huh?" They eye me suspiciously and move on without a word. We are pirates, after all, here to shop, not to chat.
Before leaving Everything CD, I buy the first of my installer discs, Volume 2. This tribute to pirate technology costs the same as all the other CD-ROMs at Golden Arcade, about six quid or three for £16. Incredibly, this disc has 86 programs on it, each compressed with a self-extracting installation utility. Volume 2 has a beta copy of Windows 95 as well as OS/2 Warp, CorelDraw! 5, Quicken 4.0, Atari Action Pack for Windows, Norton Commander, KeyCad, Adobe Premier, Microsoft Office, and dozens of other applications, including a handful written in Chinese. Connoisseurs of the genre compare the different versions of the installer discs like fine wines. Someone from Microsoft later tells me that the retail value of the disc is between £13,000 to £23,000. Not a bad deal for less than what it costs to fill up with unleaded.
My trip to the legendary Golden Arcade comes in the midst of a four-country shopping tour of Southeast Asia. I have come to explore the consumer end of the software piracy business. To put it bluntly, I want to know what's in it for the shopper. By now I am pretty well acquainted with the Microsoft-driven Business Software Alliance, the group arguing aggressively that global software piracy is a crime against humanity and that it robbed software companies of £10.1 billion in revenue worldwide in 1994 (£2.9 billion of those losses happened in Asia). Stephanie Mitchell, a Hong Kong-based lawyer for Autodesk, one of the alliance's partners in the drive against piracy, tells me over lunch in a finely burnished restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Hong Kong that "software piracy is a substantial regional criminal enterprise" with "octopus-like tentacles" reaching into all aspects of computer use.
That may be true, but the sentiment among consumers, sellers, visitors, and just about everybody else I meet here is substantially different. "You know, you're in Asia for a while and you start to think, Well, fuck Bill Gates," said a friend who is an executive with a large telecommunications firm in Hong Kong. In Bangkok, Jamie Zellerbach, an American computer entrepreneur, said, "It's just a matter of necessity. We want the software and we want it now. We need it. But we can't get it any other way: the real stuff is overpriced, and there's zero support."
One thing is certain: despite international protocols on intellectual property rights, despite the millions being spent by large American companies to combat piracy, and despite the halting efforts of Asian governments to join in the battle against the techno-bluebeards, there is plenty of software to choose from, and the prices are impossibly low - if you know where to look.
For purely personal reasons, I begin my journey in the Philippines. I lived here for years, my wife is Filipino, and I just love the place. Think Third World, and chances are your mind's eye will conjure up something like the city of Manila. It's crowded, filthy, noisy, poor, inefficient, vibrant, and weird. Sprawling for miles in every direction along Manila Bay, this is Los Angeles on a very low budget. But even here, in a place where corruption, instability, and bad timing have conspired for decades to keep the Philippines outside the wonder world of Asian economic growth, the turnaround is finally evident. The computer business is booming.
I had been told, however, that the alliance was keeping a tight grip on the place and not to expect much in the way of software. Still, I had to look. Inside the Quad Car Park Center, a middle-class shopping area in the Makati business district, it takes all of five minutes to find a shop with a neat stack of CorelDraw! 5, Microsoft Publisher, and a handful of other CD-ROM titles. I buy Corel and Publisher - they cost about £10 apiece. Let's see, Corel retails for nearly £330 back home and Publisher for about £65. I am definitely on to something. "Why so cheap? Where does this stuff come from?" I ask a clerk, who pretends not to hear me. "Maybe they are clones," says a customer next to me, winking and laughing.
There is some hesitancy in the trade here, though. Inside a sleazy, dark closet of a shop in the same complex, I order up a copy of SimCity 2000 on floppy disks. This is done the old-fashioned way: the customer supplies the floppies, and the shop charges about £2 per disk to copy the program. With multimedia technology in wide use nearly everywhere, though, almost all the pirated software you will find in Asia now is on CD-ROM. This place, which was recently raided by the police and closed for a few hours for violation of copyright laws, also sells bogus CD-ROMs, mostly entertainment titles. I ask a tall man with bad acne and a nervous air about him if I can get any business software. "We're not handling that anymore," he says, "much too risky." He used to take special orders from clients, fly to Hong Kong, and bring back the goods on a regular basis, he adds, but the new anti-piracy campaign has him spooked. "Maybe later, if things get quieter, but not now."
There is no such hesitancy in the Philippines's largest and oldest computer trading centre, Virra Mall, in the suburb of Greenhills, about 3 miles east of Manila through dense, smoky, unwieldy traffic. Most of the dozens of small computer shops located on the third floor of the mall, above the din of a little amusement park and the clutter of food stalls on the first floor, offer plenty of pirate titles - from games to business applications. The selection isn't as good as in Hong Kong, and the prices are a little higher, but you won't have any trouble finding what you need.
The only nod to anti-piracy is an alliance poster of popular local folk singer Freddie Aguilar that is tacked to many doorways. It bears the admonishment, "Go for the original." Inside a shop run by a voluble Filipino-Chinese businessman named Frankie, the original is hardly an issue. He displays four copies of Compton's Interactive Encyclopaedia, for example, and explains the way the business works. His CD-ROMs are from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United States. The prices start around £20 for the China-made product and go up to £33 for the Singaporean CD-ROM. The licensed version costs a whopping £150, roughly four times what you might pay for Compton's in the West. Frankie, who carries a full line of business software, games, and multimedia titles, recommends buying the Singapore-made CD-ROMs. "More reliable. Better quality control," he says. I make a mental note to check out the software the next time I'm in Singapore. Before I leave, I ask Frankie if he builds computer systems. He does, and he pulls out a file of references. Inside are names from the American Embassy, local missionary organisations, well-known American companies. "I get a lot of referrals, a lot of repeat business," Frankie says. I ask about software. "Anything you want. Included in the price. No charge," he says. A 486-DX-2 multimedia system "fully loaded" would go for about £1,200 from Frankie. Now, I can't say for sure that Frankie is selling these pirate-laden 486s to the US Embassy, but the implications were pretty clear.
After Manila, I am off to Hong Kong, just a couple of hours by plane. Here the scene is a little overwhelming. So many titles, so little time. Before plunging into the Golden Arcade, I check 298 Hennessy Road, a relatively new computer mall located in the centre of the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong island. Made famous by generations of sailors on leave and the legend of Suzy Wong, the girlie-bar trade is barely important to Wan Chai anymore. There is real money to be made in prosperous, modern Hong Kong, and you're unlikely to meet many Chinese ladies drawn to the oldest profession. In the new Wan Chai, 298 Hennessy Road is more like it: a shady enterprise with lots of money on the table, operating in the open. There are three floors of computer stalls here; most of them are selling pirated wares quickly and at a budget price even a bit lower, on average, than Golden Arcade.
The alliance folks had told me about 298, and I had no trouble finding it. But the place has been taking a little heat lately from the authorities, so I'm not surprised the clerks don't want to talk to me. But talk isn't important. I pick and choose, enjoying the dizzying variety. I find a copy of AutoCad Release 13 for about £4. For the same price, I pick up Weekend Home Projects, Encarta 95, 3D Animation Bank Vol. 1, and A Hard Day's Night. The retail on these things in the US runs from about £2,600 for AutoCad to £19 for Weekend Home Projects. In Hong Kong, it doesn't seem to make any difference what's on the disc: a copy is a copy.
Mike Morrow, a Hong Kong-based publisher who has recently launched his own legitimate multimedia company, explains the system to me over a drink. The factories that produce these shadowy CD-ROMs are almost all located in southern China, in the "special economic zone" of Shenzhen in the province of Guangdong. Costing several million dollars and using sophisticated Philips replicating equipment, the enterprises are usually joint ventures with Hong Kong businessmen, says Morrow. And even though some of his own titles have been ripped off by Chinese freebooters, he says that Microsoft does "too much huffing and puffing" about the problem. Piracy will eventually wither away, Morrow says, when American producers charge more realistic fees for their products.
For now, the market is wide open, and I'm off to the Golden Arcade, which, it turns out, is a splendid way to compare the old and the new in Hong Kong. To get there, take the gleaming, super-efficient MTR subway to Sham Shui Po. The MTR is the kind of mass-transit system an American city can only dream of: it's fast, cheap, and safe - a tribute to British administration and Chinese efficiency in the colony. And no problem finding your way: the arcade is so well known by now that there are even signs for it in the MTR, a fact that really irritates the alliance enforcers.
While the area may be known for the Golden Arcade and its illicit high-tech wares, the neighbourhood is old China, a world away from the whirring frenzy of downtown Hong Kong's towering corporate centre. Down Fuk Wa Street is an open market where canvas-sided booths peddle kitchenware, cheap plastic luggage, and wooden trinkets. The side streets are lined with noodle shops and medicine parlours that offer potions made from herbs, exotic snakes, and forbidden powdered rhino horn. The off-track betting stand of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club is doing a brisk business, and the only reminder that we are in the computer age is the ever-present shops selling pagers and cellular phones - must-haves for everyone, it seems, in Hong Kong.
The unprepossessing mall, at the corner of Fuk Wa Street and Kwei-Lin, is notable only for the steady stream of traffic in and out of its doors. Inside, I get busy. In addition to the Installer disc I already mentioned, I follow the lead of an Australian woman I meet in one of the shops who recommends Myst. "It's a lot of fun," she says. What the heck, for £6, how can I lose? I ask if she's a regular here. Does the stuff work? How is it? "Oh sure, everything here works," she says. "We have CorelDraw!, Office, Microsoft Publisher, and lots of games, and we haven't had any problems." That's enough recommendation for me. I pick up a few more things: another installer and a sexy-looking interactive Japanese CD before I go prowling upstairs. There, away from the pirate frenzy, I find a legitimate dealer, Software Collection. The store is stacked to the ceiling with boxed versions of much of the software for sale down below. CorelDraw! 5 costs £170; Microsoft Office is £220; licensed versions of FoxPro, Delrina WinFax, and Lotus SmartSuite carry similarly lofty price tags. Predictably, the store is empty. "Who buys this stuff?" I ask the clerk. "It seems too expensive."
"We are legal," he says with irritation. "Have license. Technical support. No problems." But how much do you sell? I ask, thinking that hardly anybody would want to spend £300 for something they can buy downstairs for £10. "We sell plenty," he spits back. The conversation is over.
Outside, as I head for the subway I encounter an American couple taking a break from their shopping. How do they feel about buying illegal software? "I don't mind paying for software if it's worth something," said the man, an engineer from Oklahoma who has been working in Shanghai for the past six months. "But the prices now in the States are a little crazy. Here at least the prices are good."
The next day, I take the train to China - on a day trip to Shenzhen, as close to the source of this piracy as I am likely to get. Shenzhen is China's Tijuana, a border boomtown just beyond Hong Kong. If you want it, chances are you can find it in Shenzhen at a bargain price. Outside the train station, it is clear that we are no longer in Hong Kong. The place is dusty, chaotic, and bustling. In contrast to the British colony, which is orderly and maintained by a splendid civil service, Shenzhen looks out of control. Beggars jostle us on the sidewalk, one small child wrapping himself around my leg and howling for money; it takes several minutes to shake the young boy loose. In a central plaza, a gigantic Astrovision-style video screen is blaring soft-drink commercials and Cantonese pop music into the glare of the sizzling afternoon, lending a Blade Runner feel to the place. Undeterred by the weirdness, I head for the west side of town, following directions supplied by an investigator I had spoken with from Microsoft who urged me to check out the nefarious ways of Shenzhen's pirate marketplace. I cannot say I am disappointed when I finally discover the Shenzhen Science Market at the corner of Shennan Road Central and Huafa Road South. It's in the heart of a new financial district, on the second floor above a huge McDonald's outlet. Perfect. Pirate software and real Big Macs. The new Asia.
Upstairs, the place is open for business, if at a somewhat reduced scale, apparently as a result of a recent semi-crackdown urged by the United States government. Business Software Alliance investigators, as part of the global battle against intellectual piracy, had come to Shenzhen and worked closely with the Chinese authorities who raided the market earlier in the year. While this massive, shady superstore once boasted 100 or more stalls flogging their wares, there are fewer than 30 open on the day we visit. Still, business is brisk, and prices are roughly half the going rate across the border in Hong Kong. That famous installer disc can be had here for about £2. I pick up Volume 4 - this one contains Adobe Photoshop, a Jurassic Park screen saver, Paradox 4.5, Lotus Organizer, Turbo Pascal, the Holy Bible, and 47 other programs. Salespeople offer catalogues of titles in English and Chinese, and many customers appear to be negotiating for volume sales. There are video CDs of the latest movies being sold alongside the software, and a dozen TVs are competing for attention with kung-fu movies, as well as The Godfather, Speed, and Total Recall. "What a crazy place," says a smiling Italian woman, who is busy picking through a cardboard box of CD-ROM titles. I have to agree.
Before leaving Shenzhen, I stop for a late lunch at the Shangri-La Hotel's revolving restaurant, 31 stories above the jumble. This chain has become the nouveau riche hotel of choice throughout Asia, and it seems only fitting that I sample the sushi, Heineken, and French pastries here, away from the crowds, amid the splendid pretense of this ornate palace. During the slow turn, I count some 70 high-rise construction cranes. Below me, I can see the anachronistic barbed-wire fence that still separates British-held Hong Kong from Red China. That will all change in 1997, of course, when Hong Kong becomes, once and forever, a part of the People's Republic. A day spent in Shenzhen is enough to make anyone wonder at the wisdom of that move.
The last stop on my four-nation tour brings me to Bangkok, another legendary haven of the anything-goes ethos of Asian capitalism. Microsoft told me to expect raids and crackdowns here in the wake of the recent enactment of a tough copyright law. Several people suggested I get a Thai interpreter or someone familiar with the scene to help me navigate the mysterious ways of the computer underground, but I was skeptical of the advice. Back-alley visas can easily be arranged here, smuggling is a way of life, and Thailand is the home of the £5 counterfeit Rolex watch. How tough could it be to buy a little software?
I wish I could report that pirate software is available on the same street where Thailand's wide-open sex trade is carried out, the infamous Patpong Road. I did dutifully trot down to the night market that flourishes outside the go-go bars in the district, but all I could find were knockoff Rolexes, ersatz Zippo lighters, music cassettes, and cheap T-shirts. Alas, while unimaginable things are for sale all over Patpong, Bill Gates can rest easy: he isn't being ripped off on this road.
But there are other places in Bangkok where he is, if the buyers can survive the traffic. The last few years of incredible economic prosperity have given the city the mixed blessings of lots of money and too many cars too soon. Traffic isn't a problem in Bangkok; it is a biblical plague, a curse of monstrous, soul-numbing proportion. It takes me two hours to travel the few miles from a friend's house just outside the city centre to Petchaburi Road and Panthip Plaza, the centre of Thailand's retail computer trade. Once inside yet another gleaming, multistory Asian shopping bazaar, it takes little time to penetrate the veil of secrecy. Bill Gates does have a piracy problem here.
Stopping in a first-floor hardware shop, I look over a 486 system, priced at about £1,100. The salesman quickly turns on the machine to demonstrate a screen fully loaded with Microsoft Office, PageMaker, SmartSuite, CorelDraw!, and dozens of games. With that stuff at US prices, the computer might as well be free. "What else?" I ask. "Anything you need, we put for you," says the man, offering me his card and urging me to come back.
There's no shortage of CD-ROM titles either, with several shops displaying realistic-looking Microsoft packages, complete with holograms, at unrealistically low prices. Also, curiously, Panthip Plaza is a centre for the sale of amulets - relics from sacred temples or tiny gold-framed portraits of revered Buddhist monks. These often very expensive good-luck charms are a source of great pride in Thailand, and I had to wonder if the many amulet shops sitting next to the illicit software parlours were somehow protecting the trade.
Looking for a place to buy the really good stuff, I finally choose an understated, half-empty shop on the third floor of the plaza. I figure it has to be here for a reason. "What is it you desire?" asks the Indian gentleman, apparently sensing that I am less than thrilled with the displayed copies of Leisure Suit Larry and Microsoft Golf. "Business software," I reply. "Of course," he says, "I have the latest from Hong Kong, all on one disc. It is called an installer. This is Version 10."
It was a little pricey, about £40, but I bought it anyway, since he had gone to the trouble of reaching under the counter for the disc. On it I found Lotus SmartSuite, Adobe Illustrator, PC File, a soft-porn screen saver from Germany, the Physicians Desk Reference, and Norton PC Anywhere - 64 programs in all. Swept up in the moment, I ask the man where he bought this stuff. He complains that he has to go through a middleman in Bangkok. I suggest a trip to the Shenzhen Science Market and give him directions to the McDonald's. He thanks me for the advice and gives me a 20 per cent discount on my purchase. But he's worried about crossing borders with a suitcase full of illegal CDs. "I probably won't go. I am not aggressive. I am passive," he says as I leave the shop.
I, too, am not aggressive. I am not a criminal. I am not a pirate. Or at least I wasn't a pirate a few weeks ago. Now I am not so sure, and I am a little worried that I have started to dispense cross-border details on the trade to strange shopkeepers in faraway places. I had better stop before I get carried away. Besides, I have plenty of software now, enough to keep me amused for months. It's time to go home.
Getting ready to leave Asia for the US, I realise I have collected quite a little bundle of counterfeit software: 14 CD-ROMs containing several thousand pounds' worth of titles. I have spent a total of £125 in four countries, on everything from AutoCad to a Beavis and Butt-head screen saver.
Now, don't forget - I know I didn't - this is illegal. As I'm packing to leave, I shuffle the CDs around. I hide some in layers of dirty clothes, others I stuff in my hand-carried luggage. I wedge a couple into the side pocket of a suitcase. Instead of carrying them, maybe I should send them in the post. No, that's illegal, also. I'll take my chances with customs.
I remember what the Business Software Alliance people told me: this is a global, criminal enterprise. I am certainly committing a crime. Specifically, I am violating Title 18 of the United States Code, which prohibits the unauthorised reproduction of software. The alliance also told me that the United States Customs Service has been trained in the apprehension of software pirates at ports of entry. The implied warning: Bill Gates is watching.
I keep my letter of assignment from Wired handy, figuring that if I am stopped at the airport, I can explain all of this. I'm a journalist, I'm on assignment, I'll tell them. I imagine bright flashing lights, dogs, stern faces in crisp uniforms. "Perhaps you can explain this disc with the Chinese lettering? Why does it contain the latest version of Turbo Tax?"
Arriving at Los Angeles airport, the drama doesn't materialise. I'm waved through, following the blessed green line painted on the carpet that leads to the street. Nobody asks; nobody checks. The customs and immigration officers are busy inspecting the visas of foreigners. The only dog I see is a plant-sniffing beagle looking for medflies.
Once at home, I call the alliance office in Washington and tell them what I have done. "We're not going to bust you," Diane Smiroldo, the director of public affairs, assures me. She reckons I haven't committed a felony, although she's not sure; it depends on the value of what I am carrying. How much of this stuff is getting into the United States in the bags of travellers like me? I ask her. "We're not sure," she says. "It's hard to keep track."
California-based writer A. Lin Neumann (email@example.com) was a foreign correspondent in Asia. He is a firm believer in law and order - within reason.