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Copyright crackdown pushes pirates onto the Internet

A long campaign to remove pirated goods from shop fronts in Asia is finally having an impact but the crackdown has also changed the nature of the problem and new outlets are flourishing.

The results of police raids, a slate of new laws and increased prosecutions can be seen across the region on the back streets of Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore and to a lesser extent Phnom Penh and Hanoi.

For example, not too long ago outside Beijing's notorious and now closed down Silk Alley lane, any visitor would be mobbed by hawkers of every kind offering the latest films and music for as little as one dollar a pirated disc.

On a recent visit, not a one was to be seen.

The success in forcing the pirates at least off the street if not out of the market follows intense pressure from the United States and the West on Asian governments to clean up their act.

Vendors plying copied Hollywood blockbusters, a Hermes Kelly bag, fake Viagra or home-made auto spares as an original part are hurting, insists Su Chun-hung, a deputy police chief in Taiwan.

He is proud of his Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Police Team which in 2005 cracked 4,783 piracy cases and arrested 5,469 people, up significantly on the previous year.

"Copyright infringement and piracy have improved due to daily raids on night markets," he said. "But it is still challenging."

To counter the authorities, black market buccaneers are shifting their goods from roadside stalls and shopping malls to the Internet -- Su's team now also conducts "daily patrols of Internet sites".

His point was echoed by industry observers in Mumbai and Seoul, where much like Bangkok and Jakarta, it's business as usual with counterfeit products brazenly on display in the tourist precincts.

Mahesh Bhatt, a Bollywood film producer, likened the campaign to the battle against terrorism and drug trafficking, saying authorities are incapable of policing the problem.

"Man has stepped into the digital age," he said. "If it has to be rooted out it will have to be through technology.

"Pirates today are faster than manufacturers."

Cosmetics, French wines, medicines, home appliances, Bulgari watches or sunglasses, Tiffany silver jewelry -- even Australia's infamous Ugg boots -- are favourites for counterfeiters.

In Taiwan, Su said police search auction sites like Yahoo, ebay and personal sites for suspicious items with unusually low price tags like a designer bag, which usually costs 2,000 dollars on sale for only 20 or 200 dollars.

Police then pose as customers and purchase the goods which are then checked. If found to be pirated, police obtain a warrant, search the seller's website, home or office, and arrests made.

Hong Kong, after almost completely shutting down street vendors dealing in pirated DVDs, has been at the forefront tackling Internet piracy and earlier this year launched legal action against 22 suspected file sharers.

Internet service providers have also been ordered to hand over personal details of suspect clients in a bid to end such fraud.

"Technology moved from the streets and into people's homes as peer-to-peer sharing of music via the Internet became popular." said one industry observer.

However Peter Thewlis, vice president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in South Korea, said success elsewhere has not made the leap to Seoul while the Internet is proving an added boon to counterfeiters.

"We believe the presence of counterfeit products on the Internet is actually a lot worse than it was a year ago," he said.

The web, he said, allows pirated goods to be sold at higher prices but just below the genuine article because unlike in street markets, customers cannot test the validity of a product and are more easily fooled.

According to figures provided by Australia's Copyright Agency, the creative and software industry alone lost 5.9 billion US dollars in 2005 due to piracy in the Asia Pacific region.

Once made, fakes are moved to secondary markets, including Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Hanoi and to IT-savvy businessmen who deliver through the Internet.

Cambodia and Vietnam insist such goods are not made in their country and can be traced backed to China where an estimated 70 percent of the world's fakes are made.

However, efforts to whittle away consumer access to pirated goods too often falls on deaf ears at the buyers end and no-where is this more prominent than at Panhtip Plaza in downtown Bangkok.

Here one Thai vendor says: "Yes, they're all illegal ... We sell about 30 to 50 DVDs a day, mostly to (foreigners)." Prices range from two to five dollars compared with 20 to 50 dollars for the real thing.

Nearby is a middle-aged Briton, who declined to be named. He travels the world buying pirated DVDs and is focussing on "Failure to Launch", the latest Sarah Jessica Parker flick.

The Brit proudly boasts, as he flips through the titles, his collection of pirated DVD movies now number more than a thousand and he adds: "Malaysia has the best quality."

 

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