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Bush Administration Tackles Intellectual Property Theft

The Commerce Department will install IP-rights experts globally to monitor and report violations while also launching programs to educate small businesses and foreign entities about IP rights and regulations.

The Bush administration is escalating the war against intellectual property scofflaws. U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez announced new administration initiatives designed to fight the theft of intellectual property to an audience of high-tech and entertainment executives in California on Wednesday. "President Bush has made this a top priority throughout the administration," Gutierrez explained in a phone interview. "This is an issue that impacts businesses. It impacts workers. It jeopardizes the very livelihoods of workers around the country, and businesses around the country because we rely so much on our intellectual property."

According to the Commerce Department, IP theft costs U.S. businesses an estimated $250 billion annually, as well as 750,000 American jobs. Figures from the World Customs Organization and Interpol put the total global trade in illegitimate goods at more than $600 billion a year.

The administration's plan calls for the appointment of IP-rights experts in countries where IP theft is endemic, such as Brazil, China, India, and Russia; a Small Business Outreach program to help U.S. companies understand how they can protect their intellectual assets; and a Global Intellectual Property Academy to educate foreign officials.

"The whole idea is to continue to increase the pressure on our trading partners to enforce intellectual-property rights," said Gutierrez. "There are countries around the world where 90% of the software that you buy, 90% of the movies, [and] 90% of the music is counterfeit."

Toward that end, the Commerce Department will be expanding its presence abroad to better monitor compliance with IP protection agreements. Its IP-rights experts will help monitor IP-rights violations, bring them to the attention of local authorities, and remind foreign government officials of their treaty obligations. Its Small Business Outreach program and its Global Intellectual Property Academy, meanwhile, will help make sure the views of the U.S. government and IP-rights stakeholders are known.

"We've found that most countries around the world have made progress in the area of establishing laws and putting laws on their books to protect intellectual property," said Gutierrez. "Where they have fallen short is in the enforcement of those laws. What we would to like see is continued activity, and [for them] to intensify their efforts to enforce the laws that they already have on their books."

Jason Schultz, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyberliberties advocacy group, contends that the administration's approach is condescending. "To really move forward on a balance of trade and intellectual property, you have to respect where these countries are coming from," he says. "You can't just assume that they're uneducated, and you'll right their wrong way of thinking."

Schultz notes that intellectual property is viewed differently in different cultures, where creative artwork or science may be seen as community assets. "If a new technique for curing a disease comes about, they want a system which provides the greatest access for that cure," he explains. "They want to compensate the people who came up with it, but the most important part of it is getting it to the people."

Disregard for pharmaceutical patents -- as a matter of public health -- is easier to justify on cultural grounds than contempt for the expense of authorized DVDs, an issue of social conscience. And Schultz concedes that it's reasonable to ask that foreign trading partners enforce their laws better. But for that, he says, they don't need education; instead, they want something in return, such as development funding or lower tariffs on their products.

What the Commerce Department doesn't want to admit, Schultz suggests, is that this may be a quid pro quo situation. "If we want to have them enforce intellectual property rights against knockoffs, we're going to have to concede some things on our end," he says.

And like intellectual property theft, trade concessions may cost dollars and jobs.

"Really," Schultz says, "what we're talking about here is the U.S. struggling to find its place in an economy where the labor markets are just so vastly different."

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