Authorities start throwing book at pirate publishers

Along bustling Chungshan Road North, hardback versions of ''The Complete Works of William Shakespeare'' are available for about $7.

But perhaps not for much longer.

The Republic of China (ROC) wants to clean up its image as a source of both cheap imitation products and ''pirate'' editions of best-selling books, records, and tapes.

The government is plainly embarrassed at the country's worldwide reputation for violations of patent rights, trademarks, and copyrights.

''Yes, we know this is not in our best long-term interests as a trading nation,'' says Vincent Sieuw, director-general of the Board of Foreign Trade. ''That is why we are cracking down now very hard on such malpractices.''

Proposed revisions of the criminal law could send violators to jail for up to five years (versus two years now) and impose fines of some $800 (US) for first-time offenders. What's more, victims of copyright abuses will be eligible for substantial civil compensation -- at least 500 times the list price of the pirate edition.

Pirated works often appear in Taipei bookshops within days of making best-seller lists overseas. The reproductions often look authentic, with the only giveaway usually being slightly inferior typeface, paper, and binding quality.

Few consumers worry about this when they can buy the book at a fraction of the cost elsewhere. Some years ago the government tried to discourage piracy by severely limiting the number of books or records travelers could take out of the country.

But when Taiwan lost its United Nations seat in 1971, official interest in enforcing the international convention on copyrights, of which the country was not a signatory, appeared to drop off. Thus authorities reportedly overlooked amateur smugglers who carried copies of normally expensive textbooks and technical publications to the United States and elsewhere to sell at a hefty profit.

The government, however, has faced mounting complaints from authors denied royalties. Even more worrying, perhaps, has been the anger of leading Western companies trying to sell in Taiwan. They often find their world-famous brand names showing up on locally produced products that sell at cut-rate prices.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Interior Ministry, now spearheading the crackdown, are adamant that Taiwan can no longer afford such a cheap ''back-street-trader'' image.

US and European trade officials in Taipei say it is already clear that the government is serious about the cleanup. In fact, a great deal appears to have been done already in advance of the legal changes. Trade officials say complaints about patent and trademark violations in particular have shrunk considerably in recent months.

But, laments one European, ''I wonder how long it will be before the counterfeiters find new ways to get round the regulations.''

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