Software pirates are gearing up for a year of record sales as theyse. take advantage of the economic turmoil in Asia.
As Asia's weakened currencies push up the cost of imports and debt-laden corporations strive to limit costs, piracy has become a tempting short cut to savings.
Alex Mercer, Australian marketing executive at the Business Software Alliance (BSA), an international anti-piracy lobby, said: 'There is a definite link between a struggling economy and the increase in piracy.'
The BSA estimated that a third of global software piracy, which represents about US$11 billion in lost sales worldwide, occurs in Asia. And it is getting worse, according to a BSA representative in Bangkok.
For US software giants like Microsoft and Novell, both members of the BSA, it might seem that the situation could hardly be more grim. In Vietnam, for example, 99 per cent of PCs are thought to be running on pirated software.
In China, potentially one of Asia's most exciting markets, the statistics are scarcely better - 96 per cent of all software is pirated there, according to the BSA.
The software piracy problem is partly to do with perception. Many Asians apparently have a hazy view of intellectual property and see little harm in hunting down a software product at the lowest possible price, even if it is illegal.
In Thailand, BSA officials estimate that in one shopping centre in central Bangkok, the number of stores selling pirated software has risen from a dozen three years ago to more than 80 today. And this is despite a copyright law introduced in 1995, which carries penalties of up to four years in prison and fines of $20,000.
At its most extreme, the piracy issue has taken on a nationalist flavour, pitching industrial nations against the developing world. One Thai journalist at a BSA press conference in Bangkok said: 'I don't see why developing countries should pay the same amount for software as the US.'
Dhiraphol Suwanprateep, a Thai lawyer working for the BSA, said: 'There is a feeling that the pirate software dealers are simply engaged in competitive business practices against companies which are charging too much.'
Suwanprateep's experience suggested that Thai courts preferred to be lenient with copyright offenders. 'In practice, offenders are always given suspended sentences accompanied by fines that are less than 10 per cent of the maximum amount. Some officials say privately that intellectual property owners should reduce their prices for the local market.'
The BSA maintains that prices and piracy shouldn't be linked. 'If you have the money to buy a car, you also need money to pay for the gas to run it,' points out Suwanprateep. 'It's the same with computers. If you buy a computer, you have to plan for the cost of software.'
A BSA representative added: 'Whether the economic situation is good or bad, people should realise that software piracy is illegal.'
Last week, Thailand opened the second Intellectual Property Court in South East Asia (the other is in Hong Kong). The BSA hopes the court will speed up the processing of about 30 piracy cases that are currently pending.
One explanation for Bangkok's move against intellectual property piracy is the US decision last April to keep Thailand on a watch-list of countries subject to investigation under Section 301. US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky warned in a statement: 'Under Section 301, the president can ultimately impose retaliatory trade sanctions.'
But even with an intellectual property court, software piracy will remain a problem in the years to come. 'We are concentrating on both education and enforcement,' said a BSA representative. 'The emphasis is on making people understand the value of intellectual property. Right now, we're focusing on businesses, government and universities.'
The BSA has set up its own hotline in Bangkok and is handing out cash rewards of up to $6,000 for information leading to the prosecution of software pirates or companies using illegal software.
'Software piracy is harmful to the economy. It deters foreign investment and stunts the development of local software,' said Mercer. Maybe, but her message is one that many of Asia's struggling businesses may find increasingly hard to take seriously.
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