It's never nice to wish someone a taste of his own medicine, but since it has already happened to Bill Clinton, here's hoping some good will come of it.
The subject is his runaway hit memoir, "My Life," which according to reports in the New York Times has recently become the latest victim of copyright infringement in overseas markets. Despite official distribution of the work in Asia, many of the copies on the street are hastily pirated versions -- sold for a fraction of the price and without any of the royalties due its rightful author.
And the chronic misspellings, cheap materials and smudgy ink that mark the knock-offs commonly found in Asia are the least of the problem. Mr. Clinton's carefully chosen words have been murdered by additions and deletions wholly out of keeping with the original. Copies available in China have Mr. Clinton serially quoting Mao and extolling the feng shui of his hometown in Arkansas.
It would be funny if it weren't so serious -- or so redolent of the policies Mr. Clinton himself has supported in another arena of great demand and Western prices. That is, knockoff drugs to fight AIDS.
Since leaving office, Mr. Clinton's Presidential Foundation has been engaged with a number of international health activists and charity organizations in trying to provide AIDS medicines to the countless suffering from the disease in underdeveloped countries in Africa, Asia and South America.
But while the goal itself is worthy, the Clinton Foundation has been a leading supporter of the use of knock-off pills, produced without permission or supervision by generics manufacturers in countries that do not recognize international patent rights. The companies, most notably Cipla and Ranbaxy in India, have long been favorites of the AIDS activist community because they pilfer technologies developed at huge cost by large Western research-based drugs firms.
The foundation acts as a liaison in brokering deals between drug suppliers and the countries that are fighting AIDS. Working in concert with global health activists, it has made headlines in recent years for securing agreements for rock-bottom prices, which Mr. Clinton hoped would "deliver life-saving medicine to two million people in Africa and the Caribbean in the next five years."
Its work lends the gravitas of a former U.S. president to the agenda of profit-oriented Third World drug companies that see a get-rich-quick opportunity in knocking off Western medicines. And, not unlike the warped version of "My Life" now being sold to the Chinese, many of those drugs have both disrespected the rights of the original producers of the medicine and been proven inferior products. Recently, several of the knock-off medicines were recalled by the WHO's prequalification board because they couldn't be shown to be equivalent of the drugs from which they were copied.
The argument for using the generic approximations of American and European antiretrovirals was always predominately about cost. Bill Haddad, CEO of Biogenerics and a proponent of using U.S. funds to buy generic drugs, described his objective as "having the Bush monies used to help patients and not enrich the multinational pharmaceutical companies."
But the same could be said for nearly any product that comes to market. University professors in less prosperous countries have made the same case regarding textbooks -- part of the same publishing counterfeit market that now threatens Mr. Clinton's book sales. They defend the pirated copies because big Western publishing companies are rich and shouldn't be allowed to keep poor students from learning.
In China, authorities wink at the practice. By a recent poll, more than 90% of students see no problem with buying the grey market versions. But the key difference is that while publishing's counterfeiting woes remain significant, few serious academics or policy makers would suggest we should encourage the practice of making knock-offs as a matter of U.S. government policy -- and principle.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai has called intellectual property rights violations the biggest threat to investor confidence in China. The book piracy is so widespread that U.S. Trade Rep. Robert Zoellick has suggested that publishers should lower their prices abroad to undercut the pirates. American publishers estimate their loss to counterfeit publishing at around $500 million over the last decade, but, at least they are able to fight vigorously to protect the work of their authors.
Supporters of the use of generic drugs regularly point out that AIDS drugs have miraculous life-extending qualities -- that they provide a critical function that should never be denied as a matter of human rights. The industry's protestations that it must profit to survive are met with jeers: but the same research that brought those drugs to market would not have happened otherwise.
Hillary Clinton got it right when she objected to the selective editing in China of her manuscript of "Living History" and Bill Clinton is right to balk at copyright infringements now. Now if only his Presidential Foundation would do the same.
The author is a columnist with the Seattle Times and New York Post.