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Asia bows to US pressure for crackdown on copyright pirates

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 17, 1987

New York

Last Christmas, movie fans in Singapore bought pirated copies of ``Top Gun,'' ``Club Paradise,'' and ``Crocodile Dundee.'' This Christmas, many of them will be watching ``La Bamba,'' ``Space Balls,'' and ``Innerspace'' - legally. After years of allowing the pirating of American movies, books, and audio tapes, the ``four tigers'' of Asia - Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong - are yielding to pressure from the United States to honor and enforce American copyrights.

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Japan, long a haven for pirates, conducted 33 raids of illicit businesses in the first six months of the year. And other Asian nations that still allow pirates to flourish are under increasing pressure to stop the practice. (US warns South Korea about import barriers, Page 5.)

This shift could mean millions of dollars in extra sales of US goods to countries that are running large trade surpluses with the US. Already, American book publishers report that sales this year are up 400 percent in Taiwan and Singapore. Sales of legitimate videotapes now make up 60 percent of the Japanese market - a substantial improvement over past years. Illegal audio cassettes have been virtually cleared from the streets of Singapore, where three years ago such illegal purchases made up 85 percent of the total market.

This reversal is welcome news to the US business community, which has complained about pirating for years. ``We are getting encouraging news in response to the complaints of US business'' says Charles Valentine, a trade specialist with the accounting firm of Arthur Young.

It is also good news for the US government, which would like to see intellectual property protection added to the trade rules covered by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

There have been some major advances in the copyright laws of Asian nations, agrees Clayton Yeutter, the US trade representative. But Mr. Yeutter adds, ``It's an open question on their effectiveness.''

The changes are taking place even as Congress is tackling the issue in the trade bill. In a measure supported by both parties, Congress proposes to let industries such as film and computer-software producers file quick-action trade complaints. The reason: Films, records, and computer programs have a short shelf life. Trade actions have to be fast.

The International Intellectual Property Alliance, made up of seven US trade associations, estimated its members lost $1.3 billion in sales in 1985 because of pirating. The US International Trade Commission, an arm of the Commerce Department, is completing a survey of 426 companies to determine losses to US business.

It is likely the report will find that while losses are declining, trade abuses are continuing. For example, US publishers charge that book pirates in South Korea used forthcoming changes in Korea's laws as a marketing tool. ``They told buyers to purchase illegal books before the textbooks went up in price or were not available,'' reports Carol Risher, director of copyright and new technology at the Association of American Publishers.

The publishers say they believe the pirates unloaded half of the 2 million books pirated annually, costing US companies $15 million to $20 million. ``We obtained a computer printout representing 980,000 copies of US pirated books, listed by author and publisher with the price in Korean won and how many copies were available,'' says Eric Smith, a Washington lawyer who specializes in international copyright law. Other Asian countries have picked up the illegal trade when their neighbors have stopped.