Thailand has become a focus of international attention again recently due to the big protests
on the street against the current government and the upcoming election, which the protesters claim symbolizes the continuing rule of the allegedly corrupted dictatorship of Thai ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. If you haven't been following it, you can read the details elsewhere, since it is quite complex and controversial. However, an interesting copyright issue has actually emerged from these protests.
Since the beginning of the protests, a key symbol of the protesters has been the whistle. The earliest flash mobs of the protest involved a large group of people gathered in public space, who all blew whistles at the same time. Soon after, whistles were used against certain politicians, with protest leaders directing protesters to blow whistles at certain politicians (those they believed were corrupt). In short, the whistle has become the symbol of resistance for the protesters.
Bluesky Channel is the local cable TV channel which is closely associated with the protest and its leaders. It has been broadcasting from the front line of the protest from the very beginning. The channel's logo is a blue lighting bolt. When the protest had grown larger, both the leader and the Channel attempted to change the symbol of the protest from an ordinary whistle to a lightning-shaped whistle in particular. They eventually sold "official" lightning-shaped whistles to the protesters and claimed the revenue would help them finance the protests.
Like just about anything in Thailand that sells well, once the lightning-shaped whistle grew popular, other merchants began to manufacture and sell "unofficial" lightning-shaped whistles to the protesters. Once it found out, Bluesky took to Facebook to angrily claim that it owned the copyright on the lightning-shaped whistle
and called for the protest guards to investigate.
On January 15th, Bluesky finally had the protest guards confiscate unofficial lightning-shaped whistles sold in the protest area by the hawkers and proudly posted the "confiscated" stuff on its Facebook page with some statements that basically said: "If you sell it, we will confiscate it."
There have been a bunch of different reactions to this. Some are claiming the guards did the right thing since the protest is against "corruption" and immorality -- being immoral can be a legitimate political accusation in Thailand -- and, to them, copyright infringement is also a kind of corruption or immoral act. To them, confiscating it is totally legitimate.
Others, however, say that even if the unofficial lightning-shaped whistles really infringe on Bluesky Channel's copyright, there shouldn't be any confiscation. Their argument is that Bluesky Channel's priority should be broadening the political alliance as widely as possible, not on selling merchandise for profit. Furthermore, there are some ironic comments that the protest itself played unlicensed music and many of the "Anonymous" Guy Fawkes masks used by protesters violated Time Warner's intellectual property. (This issue is quite complicated. The pro-government -- or pro-Thaksin, or pro-democracy as they call themselves -- groups always wear what they call "the Red Shirt." However, anti-Thaksin groups' symbols have changed over time. First, there was the Yellow Shirt, then the Multi-Colored Shirt, the Anonymous wearing Guy Fawkes mask and finally the Whistle as the latest incarnation. All these anti-Thaksin groups have different leaders, but they have roughly the same ideology, and the same goal of overthrowing everything related to Thaksin.)
It's unclear how a Thai court would react should this kind of copyright infringement case go on trial. Product design infringement cases are quite rare in Thailand. Thailand's Copyright Act is quite short and relies a lot on the courts' interpretation of the situation. Therefore, we do not even quite know what is really an infringement by any national legal standard.
Throughout this confiscation process, no actual police have been involved -- just the private protest guards. To some, this suggests that this kind of action is actually theft, which is surely a crime worse than copyright infringement by any international standard. Finally, it is totally understandable why the protesters did not call on the police to arrest those selling pirated whistles, because, as the protest went on, the protesters -- especially the guards -- showed a rather strong hostility toward the police and (not surprisingly) vice versa. In the end, however, there's an odd bit of copyright suddenly becoming an issue in the middle of large political protests.
The author, a copyright scholar in Thailand, has asked to remain anonymous, noting that with the current political climate in Thailand, using your real name in discussing anything related to the protests can be dangerous.