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Protecting Intellectual Property Is Still a Challenge in Asia-Pacific Region - 2002-07-24

Piracy of films, software and other intellectual property, remains a problem in the Asia-Pacific region. But officials from the area, meeting in Los Angeles this week, report their governments are providing ever-greater protection for copyrights and patents. Nevertheless, countries are being urged to step up domestic enforcement.

Local laws and international treaties are supposed to protect intellectual property. Yet, at an open-air market in downtown Los Angeles, sellers furtively peddle pirated feature films on videotape. Counterfeit goods, including fake Rolex watches are sold openly.

In countries like China, the problem is much worse. A large underground economy is based on the sale of pirated videodisks and computer software. The producers of music, films and software say they lose billions of dollars each year, and an industry group says Russia and China were the worst offenders last year.

But Robert Stoll of the U.S. Patent and Trademark office says, overall, things are improving. Mr. Stoll was in Los Angeles, with government representatives from 12 other countries, at a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The U.S. official said, when China joined the World Trade Organization last year, it also signed the WTO's intellectual property agreement. He noted China is cracking down on piracy and will benefit because the development of domestically-produced intellectual property can only flourish, when copyrights and patents are protected. Mr. Stoll pointed to South Korea as an example.

"It's important for them to develop their own domestic intellectual property," he said. "And as you can see, countries like Korea, which have efficient intellectual property systems, have developed in such a manner that they now have Samsung as one of the top ten filers in United States for patents."

Intellectual property rights cover a wide range, from patented drug formulas to the commercial trademarks of companies like McDonald's. Mr. Stoll says the importance of such property rights is obvious for the United States, which exports billions of dollars worth of entertainment products and computer software.

Ronol Delacruz, a Philippine official, pointed out that protecting intellectual property is also important to the development of his country. "It creates the environment for investment to come into the country," he said. "It also would enable us to have access to markets outside of the Philippines."

Mr. Delacruz went on to say that the Philippines has an active music industry and that it hopes to attract investment in computer software. Both areas benefit from enforcement of intellectual property rights.

International bodies like the WTO and the United Nations are working to harmonize national laws on copyrights, patents and trademarks, and to ensure adherence to international treaties. But having laws on the books and enforcing them are two different matters, according to Singapore official S. Tiwari.

He said, "The challenges are the same for Singapore as for many countries because while you have laws in place in terms of trying to protect the rights of creators, at the same time, you also need to tackle the problem of piracy, whether it's piracy in terms of books, piracy in terms of software, or piracy in terms of watches."

The Singapore official says an even bigger challenge is piracy over the Internet.

U.S. official Robert Stoll stressed there can never be 100 percent enforcement, and small-scale "mom-and-pop" manufacturers and distributors of pirated goods will always be a problem. But, in his opinion, piracy can be kept to acceptable levels. One suggestion discussed at the closed meeting in Los Angeles: specialized enforcement centers for intellectual property rights in individual countries. The centers would coordinate the efforts of the many government agencies that now address the problem.