MODERN Blackbeards don't fly the Jolly Roger and don't mount boarding parties on the high seas. Today's richest pirates do their larceny in labs, studios, and sweatshops in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. By making cheap copies of computer software, textbooks, recordings, films, pharmaceuticals, and designer clothing, these bandits rip off American, Japanese, and European companies for billions of dollars each year. They don't steal the goods, but they do the next most expedient thing: appropriate the research and design - the ``intellectual property'' - that went into the products. Thus they can sell the imitations at prices below those needed to recoup development costs.
The International Trade Commission calculates that in 1984 alone, third-world pirates ignoring United States copyrights, patents, and trade secrets cost American companies about $60 billion.
According to a recent report by the International Intellectual Property Alliance, the worst offenders are in China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, India, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, Brazil, Egypt, Thailand, Nigeria, and Malaysia.
The US is launching a two-prong attack on this piracy. With other developed nations, it is urging the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to bring intellectual property within its regulatory framework.
In the meantime, Washington is cracking down on countries that ignore US copyrights and patents. Last October the US levied $39 million in trade sanctions against Brazil because of illicit copying of patented drugs. The trade act passed by Congress last year lays the groundwork for further retaliation against trade pirates. By May 30 US Trade Representative Carla Hills must identify countries that are ``priority'' offenders, and if satisfactory relief cannot be negotiated within six months, the President is empowered to curb imports from those nations.
The US may have improved its standing to take a hard line on intellectual property when it recently signed the century-old Bern convention to protect literary and artistic works.
Some third-world countries seem to view intellectual-property restrictions as devices for exploitation by developed nations. It's especially unfair, they say, to prevent the inexpensive distribution of new drugs, agricultural chemicals, and other products related to health and nutrition.
But if manufacturers can't protect their rights in the third world, they will simply stop selling or licensing products there. Furthermore, developing countries that safeguard intellectual property have a stronger record of fostering domestic industry than nations that don't reward innovation.
To be sure, developed nations must not misuse intellectual-property rights to dominate third-world markets wrongfully. But there's little evidence of such abuse. And history shows that protecting the fruits of ingenuity has been one of the greatest engines of progress in both art and science.