US government gears up to STOP pirates

With only days to go before the presidential election, the US government has launched an initiative aimed at helping (i) US businesses secure and enforce IP rights in domestic and overseas markets, and (ii) stop the flow of counterfeit goods into the United States.

The Strategy Targeting Organized Piracy (STOP) initiative had been on the drawing board for the last year and is spearheaded by the Office of the US Trade Representative (OUSTR), and the departments of Commerce, Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice. It is aimed at the estimated 7% of global trade conducted in bogus products. STOP is designed to underscore the US administration's continuing commitment to level the playing field for US trade. Officials charge that rampant piracy of copyrighted, trademarked or patented US goods - in particular automobile parts, cigarettes, film DVDs, music CDs, software, processed foods, clothing, pharmaceuticals and electronic products - deprive US companies of billions of revenue dollars each year. It has been reported that last year $94 million in counterfeit goods were seized at US borders. For the first half of 2004, the number stands at $64 million in counterfeit goods.

As part of the initiative, the government has set up a hotline that will help US businesses learn about and protect their valuable IP rights from counterfeiters. By dialing 1-866-999-HALT, a US caller can speak with a Commerce Department specialist about protecting her/his intellectual property overseas. STOP further seeks to educate US businesses about the possibility for (i) holders of US registered trademarks, and (ii) holders of US registered and unregistered copyrights to record their rights with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The CBP will then stop the unauthorized importation of products infringing these rights into the United States.

The DHS and the CBP are implementing new procedures to identify firms that routinely traffic in fake goods. Once identified, the departments will work with the private sector to develop a 'No Trade in Fakes' programme under which participating companies will institute procedures that will keep counterfeit products out of their stores. In addition, the OUSTR will publish the names of overseas firms that deal substantially in counterfeit goods in its annual Special 301 Report.

The Justice Department will initiate work to cripple large scale criminal enterprises that make, trade and distribute counterfeit goods by aggressively prosecuting such enterprises and subjecting them to all appropriate criminal laws. It is also seeking to change the law to allow a US district court to impose a nationwide injunction against the import of known fake products. Existing rules allow such courts to impose these injunctions only for ports within their own jurisdiction.

In addition, the OUSTR is reportedly negotiating new trade agreements designed to strengthen the protection of the rights US authors and inventors, as well as merchants and manufacturers, have in their intellectual property abroad. According to the Washington Post, the STOP initiative envisions much closer cooperation with the authorities in other trading countries so that counterfeiting can be quashed and counterfeiters can more easily be extradited to the United States.

Time will tell if STOP is successful.

Brian E Banner, Banner & Witcoff Ltd, Washington DC

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