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Thailand Takes Tougher Line on Copyright Piracy

The Thai government is cracking down on sales of illegally copied goods, such as movies and clothes, but its campaign has met resistance. Piracy across the Asia-Pacific region is a multi-billion-dollar business fueled by demand for the latest and cheapest entertainment and software.

Deep in Bangkok's high-profile Patpong night club district, a thriving night market draws in tourists and residents alike.

A staple of Thailand's markets has long been cheap copies of everything from popular music to designer clothes.

But the government has come under increasing pressure, in particular from the United States, to curb copyright violations.

Among worst offenders: China, Russia

United States Trade Representative's office says that in the Asia-Pacific region, China, Russia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan are the worst offenders for intellectual copyright piracy.

But this year, the USTR put Thailand on its special watch list of countries failing to curb violations. Countries that do not address the problem could face U.S. trade sanctions.

The Intellectual Property Alliance says its members lost more than $400 million in Thailand in 2007, because of sales of illegally copied business software, video games, music and movies.

In May, the Thai government began cracking down.

One of the first targets was Patpong. When officials seized suspected goods, a riot erupted as vendors fought back with sticks, bottles and stones. Several people were injured. Some vendors say soldiers were involved in the raid.

One vendor, who asked not to be named, says most goods seized in the raid did not violate copyright laws.

"Police come, he take everything," he said. "You saw, you saw in the market we have a problem [of counterfeit goods] about 10 to 20 percent - 80 percent no problem. But he's not police, he is soldier. He takes everything you know, everything from my shop."

Piracy causes billions in losses

Sales of illegally copied software, movies and music across the Asia-Pacific region continue to rise. The Business Software Alliance, an international group, estimates software piracy alone caused losses of over $15 billion last year in the region.

Many governments, however, are taking a harder line on the trade.

Jeffery J. Hardee is the BSA's Asia-Pacific regional director. He says there are good economic reasons for doing so.

"In a place like Thailand, a 10 point drop in the piracy level could have an additional $1 billion to the gross domestic product of the country," said Hardee. "About half of that would remain in the country and it could create several thousand new jobs and add $55 million of additional tax revenues."

Government vows to continue crackdown

The government vows to continue the crackdown. Raids through June targeted other well known venues selling pirated software and entertainment.

Deputy Commerce Ministry Alongkorn Ponlaboot leads the effort. He dismisses vendors' complaints that authorities have been heavy handed, but says his agency will try to avoid problems such as the riot in Patpong, as it builds community support the crackdown. And he says the government hopes to show the USTR that it is serious about curtailing piracy.

"Hopefully, because of the Patpong crackdown, will be the reason for us to improve our program to promote what is intellectual property, that the public should know," said Alongkorn. "I think we get more understanding at least - the Commerce Ministry and USTR can say that they support our policy and our seriousness of our policy implementation."

New legislation envisioned

The government is drafting new legislation on intellectual property, which, among other things, would impose tough penalties on landlords if their tenants sell illegally copied goods.

But vendors are fighting back. They lodged a complaint against the government with the Thai Law Society. The president of the Lawyers Council of Thailand, Dej-Udom Krairit, says the government acted improperly in Patpong.

He says that affected companies must begin legal action against vendors for violating trade marks, not the government.

"You must have the complainer to lodge the complaint - you need to bring along those who are representatives of the interested parties - i.e. the owner of the copyright to identify which part of the good is pirated. Not send the troops to take charge, grab all those vendors or property without identifying the pirated one. You can't do that," said Dej-Udom.

The Thai government says its tactics are proper, and are important not only to meet international law, but also to protect Thailand's entertainment industry, which also loses money to pirates at home and abroad.