05 December 2006

Intellectual Property Rights


Amongst all the talk of pirated music, movies, designer clothes and handbags, I often forget that intellectual property rights apply to something with far graver consequences than all of this fake merchandise: illegally manufactured drugs. A mention on another blog of a recent Guardian article about--no joke--killer Viagra caught my attention, so I thought I'd share it here. Can intellectual property rights be more heavily applied to one field and less strict in others? Surely, selling illegal VCD copies of a newly released movie (some of which may not work) and selling illegally manufactured drugs (some of which may just be placebos without the acting ingredient) are entirely different. Right?

Illegal pharmaceuticals aren't the only controversial thing to be churned out of Chinese factories. Maybe a little bit less harmful to the general public, but otherwise just as gruesome, are the dead body factories that have been popping up in Dalian. Below is an excerpt from a NYTimes article in August (so I am a little late on this news):

"Inside a series of unmarked buildings, hundreds of Chinese workers, some seated in assembly line formations, are cleaning, cutting, dissecting, preserving and re-engineering human corpses, preparing them for the international museum exhibition market.


The mastermind behind this operation is Gunther von Hagens, a 61-year-old German scientist whose show, “Body Worlds,” has attracted 20 million people worldwide over the past decade and has taken in over $200 million by displaying preserved, skinless human corpses with their well-defined muscles and sinewy tissues.

But now with millions of people flocking to see “Body Worlds” and similar exhibitions, a ghastly new underground mini-industry has emerged in China.

With little government oversight, an abundance of cheap medical school labor and easy access to cadavers and organs — which appear to come mostly from China and Europe — at least 10 other Chinese body factories have opened in the last few years. These companies are regularly filling exhibition orders, shipping preserved cadavers to Japan, South Korea and the United States.

Fierce competition among body show producers has led to accusations of copyright theft, unfair competition and trafficking in human bodies in a country with a reputation for allowing a flourishing underground trade in organs and other body parts.

Here in China, determining who is in the body business and where the bodies come from is not easy. Museums that hold body exhibitions in China say they have suddenly “forgotten” who supplied their bodies, police officials have regularly changed their stories about what they have done with bodies, and even universities have confirmed and then denied the existence of body preservation operations on their campuses.

Human rights activists have attacked the exhibitions, calling them freak shows that may be using the bodies of mentally ill people and executed prisoners. In June, the police in the city of Dandong, about 190 miles northeast of here, discovered about 10 corpses in a farmer’s yard. The bodies were being used by a firm financed by foreigners, the government said, that was illegally involved in the body preservation business.

Worried about a growing trade in illegal bodies, the Chinese government issued new regulations in July that outlawed the purchase or sale of human bodies and restricted the import and export of human specimens, unless used for research. But it is unclear how the regulations will affect the factories."

Creepy stuff, huh? Leave it to China to produce the things that no other country wants to be known for.

I've been to see the Bodies Exhibit while in New York last year, and although it made me feel queasy I have to recommend it. It's a little morbid, especially a particular exhibit I remember, in which a skinless man stood holding hands with his plastinated skin, sculpted into the outline of his body. But it definitely beats a gross anatomy lab without the smell of formaldehyde.


At December 06, 2006 11:55 AM, Anonymous Julia said...

Good name.


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