A few decades ago, well before Taiwan had developed as a tourist destination, the island was a dream destination for bargain-hunting bibliophiles from English-speaking countries.
Phil Briggs, an Australian accountant who worked in Hong Kong between 1982 and 1994, describes how several of his business trips to Taiwan ended: “As soon I’d wrapped up my meetings, I’d head to the city’s booksellers and start browsing. One time, I took 26 kilograms of books back to Hong Kong with me. Taipei back then was especially good for dictionaries, encyclopedias and other reference books.”
“I knew that, in many cases, these books were being reproduced without the publishers’ or authors’ permission. At the time, I did see the irony of doing something which, while not breaking local law, wasn’t exactly in keeping with the spirit of my profession,” adds Briggs, who is now retired.
Many of the businesses that published foreign-language books in that era have long since disappeared. One that continues to thrive is Bookman Books Co. Ltd. The Taipei-based company now has around 60 full-time employees, as well as bookstores in Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung. Since its founding in 1977, it has put out approximately 2,000 titles, with almost one in 10 published in English.
“Before 1987, we did local reprints of US and UK publications with or without permission of the original publishers,” says Jerome Su, Bookman’s chairman. “According to the ROC’s copyright law of that time, any foreign works not registered with the copyright office here in Taiwan were deemed to be in the public domain, and therefore could be legally reprinted to facilitate education and spread knowledge,” Su explains.
Although book reproduction of the kind witnessed by Briggs has been almost totally eradicated in Taiwan, local publishers continue to produce a surprising variety of books in foreign languages. According to the English-language Publishing in China: An Essential Guide released by Thomson Learning in 2004, around one-quarter of the titles published in Taiwan are in languages other than Chinese, with English (19 percent) and Japanese (5.8 percent) dominating.
On the face of it, the 24.8-percent figure is astonishing; few Taiwan bookstores stock more than a handful of items in languages other than Chinese. However, if one adds up books produced locally and aimed at ROC citizens studying English, titles put out by educational bodies such as Taiwan’s foremost academic and research institute Academia Sinica, and publications issued by official agencies such as the Government Information Office (the publisher of Taiwan Review), the tally becomes believable...The rest of this article can be read online here, or in the January 2011 issue of Taiwan Review. Book piracy is still fairly common in Taiwan, especially around college campuses, as this report notes.