So I was in Moscow last week, working on the Russian version of Married...with Children and one of my colleagues asked me what I thought about the new Belarusian situation comedy, The Theorists. It seems that an "unauthorized" (read: fully pirated) version of Chuck Lorre's wonderful sitcom, The Big Bang Theory had just hit the air in Belarus, and Lorre was loudly up in arms -- but powerless to stop it because the production has the blessing of the Belarusian government, and asking Belarusian courts to adjudicate the matter is a bit like asking my brother to hit himself with a big stick. My colleague wondered if I shared Lorre's outrage. She asked me, point blank, "Is this a bad thing?"
No one should ever ask me for value judgments. I don't make 'em. I think they're bad. In this case, though, I thought about Japanese porn. Strange connection, you say? Maybe not. See, back in the 1980s, the Japanese had very strong laws against publishing pornography. If you wanted to enjoy tawdry material in that time and place, your best bet was to look at manga comics through squinty eyes. Then along came the fax machine, and everything changed. Suddenly, either as a sick hobby or a social movement, people all over Japan started faxing dirty pictures to one another, and in very short order, the Japanese laws against porn were obsolete. They were still there; they'd just been rendered irrelevant by a certain advance in technology. Of course, we all know what the Internet has to say about porn, but that's not really the point. The point is this: Whenever the law, or even moral outrage, goes up against technology, technology always wins.
That's why intellectual property is so imperiled these days, and that's why Chuck Lorre is powerless to stop the forces of imitation in Belarus, Burkina Faso, or wherever his nemeses next strike. Copyright laws generally contemplate disputes between rights-holders under the umbrella of one legal system (or several cooperating ones). Step outside that umbrella and, well, you get wet. With the Internet sending intellectual property into corners of the world that laugh at (or have never heard of) our jurisdiction, today's creative rights holder is as vulnerable to rip-off as tourist in a train station. And it will be that way until the laws catch up to the technology -- which will never happen, because technology changes much, much faster than law.
For the record, the Russian version of Married...with Children was wholly authorized by the US rights-holders, and legitimately purchased by a Russian television network. This is the norm for most of international television production, distribution, remakes, and format sales, and in its time and in its turn, The Big Bang Theory will likewise be produced in glatt kosher versions all around the world. But also in pirated versions, more and more as time goes by. That's not a good thing, it's not a bad thing, it's just a thing that is.
By coincidence, the same day I was asked about the Theorists situation, another Russian in another room asked me if electronic copies of my new novel, The California Roll, were yet available online. I told him that legal downloads were still weeks away, but that bootleg versions were probably already popping up on black market Russian file servers. A two-minute Google hop proved I was right. Which means that someone somewhere in Yekaterinburg or Omsk is already reading the novel's not-entirely-irrelevant-to-this-discussion opening line ("The first person I ever scammed was my grandmother, who had Alzheimer's disease and could never remember from one minute to the next whether she'd just given me ice cream or not"). For this I will receive zero compensation, but I won't lose sleep, for the consequences are trivial -- that's literally tens of rubles in royalties that I'm missing out on -- and I try to take such things in stride. In the case of Mr. Lorre, of course, the consequences are significantly non-trivial. He deserves big money for the use of his material, as do the production company that made the hit show, the individual writers of the scripts, the actors, and everyone else who contributed their creative efforts with the expectation, and legal right, to be compensated for subsequent use.
I just don't know how they're going to collect, that's all. Short of pulling the plug on all those fax machines, you couldn't stop Japanese porn, and short of ending the Internet, you're not going to stop Real Housewives of Irian Jaya, coming this fall to a TV far, far away from you.
John Vorhaus is the author of The California Roll, published by Shaye Areaheart Books, on-sale March 16, 2010. You can visit him online at www.radarenterprizes.com
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