'Gentlemen do not steal the ideas of others.' Oh yeah?

How laws help and hinder those seeking protection

According to Pat Choate, the British aristocracy once believed that "gentlemen do not steal the ideas of others." As the author deftly points out in his latest venture, however, that philosophy (even among Englishmen) could not be further from the truth. Choate, a political economist, radio co-host, and 1996 vice-presidential running mate of Ross Perot, tracks the evolution of the stealing of ideas and inventions, along with the development of legal mechanisms, such as patent and copyright laws, to protect (or at least attempt to protect) owners from such thievery.

Through political commentary, historical storytelling, and a plethora of statistics, Choate describes the pilfering of ideas on individual and governmental levels, and provides an in-depth account of how US and international laws have helped and hindered those seeking protection.

Whether it be his analysis of the policies in the United States, Germany, Japan, or now China, one constant theme throughout Choate's narrative is clear: Nations looking to build up an economic presence in the world have focused on snatching the inventions and ideas of others, protecting them within their borders with homegrown intellectual property laws, and using those protections to gain a foothold (or, if possible, a stranglehold) in the market. As examples, Choate recounts the successes and failures of, among others, Eli Whitney and IG Farben in protecting their ideas through legal means.

As for the current state of affairs, the author is clearly discouraged by the massive amounts of piracy occurring today in other countries, and statistics support his outrage.

According to Choate, in China and Vietnam more than 90 percent of packaged business software is pirated. The Association of American Publishers estimates that book piracy (surely a concern to the author) will cause an annual loss of $600 million in revenues. William Lash, US secretary of Commerce, recently stated that piracy in China costs industries in the US, Europe, and Japan over $60 billion annually.

The May 2005 Special 301 Report of the United States Trade Representative (which outlines the adequacy and effectiveness of intellectual property protections within countries worldwide) lists China, Thailand, and the Philippines on its "Priority Watch List" as needing serious improvement in protections and enforcement.

Yet for all the enforcement inadequacies found by Choate, he fails to acknowledge that there have also been some advances. In the past month alone, Malaysia has announced that it will establish a court devoted exclusively to intellectual property law in response to rampant piracy; a Chinese court sentenced two Americans and two Chinese to prison terms for selling pirated DVDs on Internet sites; and new US legislation was signed making it a criminal offense to use camcorders or other recording devices to record movies in theaters.

It is clear that Choate is passionate about the subject matter, and his sincerity seeps through. While chock-a-block with well-founded (although discouraging) facts and historical poignancy, Choate fails to offer any tangible solutions or provide convincing evidence that international piracy is slowing the progress of the sciences and arts. In fact, he acknowledges that there are adequate global treaties, international mechanisms, and domestic laws to protect intellectual property rights. To him, fault lies both in inadequate enforcement and with the political leaders who fail to apply the necessary pressure.

Ultimately, he warns, piracy will discourage inventors and ideamakers from innovating. Yet he offers no support for such conclusions. Overall, readers looking for an elaborate and enjoyable account of the history of piracy - from the street vendors selling DVDs in Manhattan to systematic piratical policies of governments seeking economic advantages - should look no further. On the other hand, readers looking for solutions to the piracy problem will be left wanting more.

Glenn Pudelka, formerly a book editor, is currently an intellectual property attorney at Palmer & Dodge LLP.

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