Protecting Intellectual Property Has Its Headaches

BANGKOK (05/31/2000) - For Weerawit "Don" Weeraworawit, Deputy Director General, of the Department of Intellectual Property (DIP), Ministry of Commerce, life spent chasing counterfeiters has its ups and downs. On the bright side, he and his team are helping draw attention to the fact that Thailand no longer wishes to be associated with the modern-day pirates of Southeast Asia, while on the dark side more successful raids could shorten his life.

"There's no doubt about it, my job would become more dangerous if we were more successful in raiding these pirates and their illegal factories. Right now, there are about 50 pirate lines here and they are all competing against each other. If new laws are drafted to help us in the fight, then another risk would be added to my job, but we need drastic powers to fight them," said Weerawit.

In its fight against narcotics, the Thai Government has given police the power to seize properties of drug barons convicted of being part of the illegal trade and the Deputy Director General would like to see his department get some of the same. Having a limited budget to conduct raids on suspected factories only goes so far and when compared to the piles of cash pirates have at their fingertips, makes the government efforts seem futile at best.

"It's true that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely' but we need new laws to fight this menace. As of June 30 this year, we will have the power of the law to seize goods that contravene Thailand's Trademark Act, but unfortunately this does not include infringements to the Intellectual Property Act. We are working with our partners in other countries to help address this issue. If pirates can have their networks, then so can we," added Weerawit.

Trusted with protecting Intellectual Property rights, Trademarks and Patents, the DIP team today consists of around 200 people. Coordination with the Economic Crime Investigation Division (ECID) happens on a weekly basis and usually the affected patent or copyright holder attends too. The force has registered some success, but has plenty of obstacles still in its way.

"There has been a reasonable improvement in the piracy levels from a couple of years ago. We'd certainly like enforcement to be more effective but we have many barriers in front of us. Each week the group deals with the latest problem rather than the successes of the previous week. We're just trying to leapfrog the problems before they get to us or come up with a work-around plan," he added.

In fact some of the obstacles placed in the DIP's way come via the government and courts themselves. In one such case, a suspect who had been caught red-handed with fake goods, had been detained along with the bounty. After being released the department then faced allegations that some of the products had been stolen while in storage. Unbelievable as it may seem, a criminal attempted to file charges against the authorities for stealing his illegal goods.

"There are certain places in Bangkok, which we all know, where persons blatantly sell illegal software, movies and the like. It certainly makes a mockery out of the law. We have tried disrupting their businesses, but they beat us by having spies with mobile phones a few blocks away to warn their partners when we're coming. We know who they are, everyone knows who they are, but we need to catch them," he said.

The "Maximum Disruption" raids on Pantip Plaza, Bangkok's biggest outlet for pirated products, were part of a joint exercise between the DIP and the Business Software Alliance (BSA). Unfortunately, the DIP ran out of funds and had to switch to a less expensive, less high profile, and more effective way of closing down the pirates.

"After about nine months of operations we had to suspend the Maximum Disruption campaign because we had run out of money," bemoaned Weerawit. "We now have a new program in which we can strike without too much notice. These 'short, sharp, shock' raids are much better because the longer we stay out there, the more familiar our people become to the pirates. This is proving to be more effective."

A recent score for the DIP came when a CD stamping factory in Bangkok, CD machines and all relevant equipment must be registered with the government agency, was busted. The long-term investigation revealed that the factory was not only producing CDs for the local market, but also for the international markets, something that shocked officers at the agency.

"We have to make the conditions of importing such equipment in to the kingdom more stringent. Any movement of an optical disk (CD) machine must be reported to us immediately, anyone who fails to comply with this law faces prosecution and could have their equipment seized. It is a real cat and mouse game," he added.

The present Money Laundering Law in Thailand does not yet cover monies earned from the illegal sale or video disks or illegal software. Also shops that are thought to be in on the scam claim that revenues from the selling such products do not surpass the tax threshold limit. The fact that these shops are selling illegal products in the first place seems to fall on deaf ears.

"When we suspect a shop of being illegal we go in and arrest everyone, except the customers. To be honest, we really don't know the true level of piracy here, although we can easily monitor the corporate market. The BSA recently sent out 15,000 letters informing companies that they need to state what software they are using. This is very good, but BSA members should look at other avenues that reduce piracy such as a reduction in prices," he added.

So what level of piracy would Weerawit be happy with? "I'd be happy with a considerable reduction in visibility. If we could close more than half the shops in Pantip, then I'd be happy. The problem is though, if we hit them too hard they'll take the business to the streets. We've seen this in Hong Kong and do not want it to happen here. It would make our job that much harder."

On a separate note, Weerawit's team is challenging one of the biggest countries in the world over a new scam that features one of Thailand's major exports -- rice. In the U.S. today, consumers are being conned by American companies selling rice packaged and dubbed as "Jamsmati" a cross between Thailand's Jasmine rice and India Basmati rice. This is a difficult matter for the DIP team to come to grips with.

"I guess it shows how we have come of age, when American firms start to copy our own brands. This is more expensive for our companies to fight this in the States than it is for their companies to fight the same charges here," he said.

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