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Piracy fight hits crucial point for gov’t

Taiwanese government sends mixed stance on issue

TAIPEI — A visit to a crowded market in Taiwan reveals half a dozen vendors selling pirated copies of such current American blockbusters as “Spider-Man” and “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that earlier in May Taiwan managed to make America’s annual Special 301 Priority Watch List of countries with rampant and unchecked piracy of intellectual property rights. That makes this the fourth year in a row the U.S. has included the Republic of China (ROC) in its roundup.

For Taiwan, which will soon join the World Trade Organization and has petitioned to become an observer of the World Health Organization, the distinction couldn’t come at a more inopportune time.

In response to the U.S. castigation, numerous branches of the Taiwanese government issued their standard get-tough statements while at the same time defending the island’s record on combating piracy.

The mixed messages have not helped present a clear agenda for tackling one of the island’s most pressing issues.

Going on the defensive, deputy director general Jack Lu of the island’s Intellectual Property Office protested, “No other country pays as much attention to protecting intellectual property as the ROC.”

Meanwhile, Cabinet spokesman Chuang Suo-hang offered a more proactive response: “We will not stop (our efforts) until counterfeiting has been stamped out,” he declares.

Local police created a special task force to stop piracy at its source. Last week, the task force raided a warehouse in suburban Taipei and confiscated pirated computer software programs, movies and CDs that had a market value of more than $14 million, according to police officials.

Currently, those convicted of illegally duplicating copyrighted products or selling them face a maximum three-year jail term and a fine of up to $7,500. Those numbers are expected to go up later this year with an amendment to the ROC’s copyright laws.

Unabated sales

Crackdown or no crackdown, pirates still hawk their wares, sometimes brazenly in the open. More cautious vendors operate on remote street corners or from the backs of vans. One pirate, who identifies himself only by the surname Lin, doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the crackdown. He explains, “The police do this every once in a while.” Lin concedes that stricter enforcement of intellectual property rights is “inconvenient” for his business but did not greatly affect his sales.

He declines to give an exact figure but says he can make anywhere from $100 to $2,500 a day selling illegal copies of popular American pics for roughly $6 per disc.

Estimates vary about the exact toll that Taiwanese pirating takes on profits from legitimate products. The U.S. government puts the damage at roughly $333 million, a figure that combines losses from pirated computer software, films and CDs, according to the United States Trade Representative Office’s last report, issued in April.

Is there any good news in all this? The latest installment in the “Star Wars” franchise grossed roughly $1 million last weekend in area theaters, making it one of the biggest bows in local box office history. Obviously many moviegoers in Taiwan are resisting the urge to view films on pirated discs and watching them the way they were meant to be seen: on the bigscreen.