With the rapid growth of the copycat industry there is now a dizzying variety of knock-off phone brands. One has recently appeared (with) president Obama as its spokesman and sports a beaming Obama on its advertisements. “This is my Blackberry,” Obama tells us with a grin, “the Blockberry Whirlwind 9500!”
– Yu Hua, China in Ten Words.
Long time no post. I have the day off work and I’m sitting in a cafe with nothing much to do, so I thought I’d try writing a bit. I’d bet the people around me drinking their single-origin drip filtered espressos would never imagine that the guy on his laptop in the corner is writing a post about the dark and seedy underworld of resin model piracy for the world’s premier miniature wargaming blog. Yeah, I said it.
The quote at the top comes from a really interesting book I’m reading called China in Ten Words, by the apparently famous (according to the book cover) Chinese writer Yu Hua. Each chapter is an essay on a word that is commonly used in general chatter and the media in China today.
The quote comes from the chapter “Copycat.” In this chapter Yu explains that, beginning with the counterfeiting of western luxury goods, copycatting has become a way of life in China, and is seen as a legitimate expression of grassroots revolutionary power. The Chinese word translated as “copycat,” shanzhai, originally meant a fortified mountain village, and came to mean a lair of bandits. It still has connotations of freedom from authority. Everything in modern China can be copycatted, and doing so is totally fine. As Yu says:
Once I ran into a reporter who had fabricated (a fake interview with Yu) and I told him firmly: “I have never been interviewed by you, ever.”
He responded just as firmly “that was a copycat interview.”
I was speechless… (but) there’s nothing I can do about it, except pray that in the future, when people make up conversations with me, they don’t have me talk too much nonsense. If someone has me say something clever, I’m even prepared to say thank you.
Last year I was involved in a 40k narrative campaign with some serious players. These guys have tens of thousands of points of fully-painted models, titans, the works. They’re all grown ups with jobs and some have kids (or motorbikes and sporty cars if they don’t have kids). Like the inimitable Von I am a frugal gamer, and have tailored my army to reflect that. It’s a battered 2000 points of Tau and human mercenaries led by a radical Ordo Xenos Inquisitor. Trouble was, the last battle of the campaign was an Apocalypse mega-battle, and I knew from experience how those games turn out for me:
1: Spend half an hour deploying my infantry and MBTs.
2: Spend the next half an hour removing them all, except for my Eversor assassin who runs across the table for the next three hours trying to get into melta-bomb range of an enemy titan or superheavy.
3: Remove Eversor when he gets stepped on and cry quietly into my coffee.
This is not that fun. So I decided to buy a beat-up stolen superheavy tank for my guys, to
represent reprazent and hopefully last a few turns. I settled on the Macharius Omega, because it looks awesome and also PLASMA KABLAMMO!!
And then I realised, I could buy one from Forgeworld for $240, or from China for $70.
Now as an Australian, I don’t feel particularly bad about piracy. Most of our early settlers were sent here for stealing things, or being Irish, or in some extreme cases, both. I’d say your average white Australian thinks that if someone in the world is getting something free or for a lower price than they are, they have the right to er… circumvent the system in order to get the better deal. We’re one of the biggest pirate nations when it comes to media, so much so that the US ambassador to Australia actually publicly condemned us all a few years ago and asked us to stop stealing Game of Thrones and pay through the nose like we’re s’posed to, please, ‘kay? We didn’t, and everything is still pretty much how it was before. Yeah, we got Netflix, but only a fraction of the catalogue available in the US is available to us, so we all just use VPNs to pretend we’re in the US. Our government (under advisement from American media corps no doubt) now wants to outlaw VPNs. Not cool.
I’m getting sidetracked here, but what I’m getting at is that there are a lot of justifications for product piracy, and as an Australian you don’t have to bust your gut to convince me there’s nothing that bad about it. Something we have in common with the Chinese I guess.
In the end though, I decided to buy my tank from Forgeworld, and I’ll tell you why. I’ve always wanted this:
It’s a resin garage kit of Gally/Alita from the manga Gunnm, known in the west as Battle Angel Alita. It was the series that introduced me to manga and anime when I was a teenager back in the mid 1990s, and I still think it’s one of the most unique, strange and philosophical manga out there. Yukito Kishiro did the whole Western metaphysics influence thing a few years before Neon Genesis, and less confusingly.
Anyway I went to buy this kit and found that I could get it from the legitimate licensed manufacturer in Korea for $110, or from some guy in Thailand for $40. I was just about to Add the Thai dude’s version to Cart when I suddenly thought: why did I think it was OK to buy a knock-off of an Asian-made work, but when it came to Forgeworld I wanted to buy British? Was I a racist? What the hell?
It was then I remembered reading a book years ago about the Japanese director Miyazaki and the rise of Japanese pop culture in the West. In it, the author showed that the Japanese government in the mid-late 90s decided that in the future, goods manufacture would be undercut by poorer nations, and that the only way for wealthier nations to stay competitive would be to use their cultural power to create and spread IPs, rather than physical objects. This was a radical idea at the time. But I see now it makes sense. The South Korean government decided the same thing in the early 200s and set up performing arts and fashion schools and departments of pop culture studies in all major universities to analyse trends, so Korean pop music and fashion could take over the world. It’s now starting to bear fruit.
No-one in Japan, South Korea, the UK or Australia is able to make stuff as cheaply as someone in China or Thailand. But because of the worldwide cultural influence that the English language wields, and the hard work the Japanese and South Koreans have put in to get their IPs and pop stars to be seen as cool worldwide, people in our countries are in the position to make up IPs and have them actually seen.
It’s sad, but you could be the most imaginative creator in Thailand but if you create in Thai, no-one outside Thailand will ever see your work and you’ll probably have to support your art with a labour, service or manufacturing job. But if you were born in the Anglosphere or Japan you can, if you work hard enough, have a job as an internationally visible artist. You can even be well-known. Perhaps even wealthy.
So this is why I buy Forgeworld from the UK, and why I’m ordering the Alita kit from Sol models in Korea instead of the Thai pirate. As time goes on, more and more Westerners will rely on IP creation and companies maintaining IPs for their income. We’ll come up with the ideas and original products, China or Thailand will make affordable copies. So not supporting Forgeworld means not supporting the people who pay the original creators, which means not supporting the creators, which means not supporting the main Western industry of IP creation. The most important and smartest thing wealthy countries with a lot of cultural clout can do is keep coming up with original ideas, and make sure our cultures stay “cool.” Copycats will mimic the original products straight away, yeah, but that’s because no-one’s willing to pay them for their original ideas. They can only make money parroting our IPs, which is sad when you think about it.
But not that sad: Mr Thai Pirate has a whole suite of knock-offs in his eBay store. There’s a whole world out there for him to copycat. He’s not going to starve if someone doesn’t buy his Alita kit that no-one born after 1985 is even going to know exists. Mr Chinaforge will just shut his site and open it again with a new name if GW somehow manages to track him down. But if someone does buy from them (and they will), the Japanese or British creator loses a little bit of the value of their IP, and that’s all they’ve got really.
So from now on my reasoning goes: I am a Westerner. It’s people in countries like mine who happen to make the original IPs that everyone loves. So if I can buy from the original creator or their licensed agent, I will; there are enough people in China to support the makers of knock-offs. They don’t need my help.
I’m not going to claim there’s some moral element here when I really don’t think there is. For me it’s a question of culture, business and practicality. If I was Chinese making/buying knock-offs would be a smart thing to do, but I’m not, and doing it just harms my local industry that might be employing myself or my friends or family. But I don’t judge those guys in China and Thailand. You gotta do what you gotta do.
Till next time, have a good one!