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Taiwan tries to get its computer pirates off high-tech seas

LEN Morgan walked into a computer store on Zhong Shan Road, Taipei's computer district. He told a man behind a terminal that he'd like to buy a copy of an Apple computer.

''Come back in two hours,'' the man replied.

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The computer was still warm from the welder when picked it up. It cost him $ 350.

That was two years ago. Mr. Morgan, head of Users' Group, an information bureau for local computer users, says that today the median prices for Apple or IBM copies are between $220 and $1,200.

Morgan's experience illustrates a growing point of friction between Taiwan and the United States. According to the Financial Times, Taiwan was producing 3, 000 look-alike computers a month in 1982. The store on Zhong Shan Road, for example, had 200 copies of American computers within 100 square yards of floor space.

Asked if it's difficult to get the computers out of the country, Morgan said, ''Getting it out of Taiwan is not a problem. But when you get to customs in the US, they'll nail you to the wall.''

But, he says, the problem must be put into perspective.

''Taiwan needs to move into the high-tech market. The government has put on enough of a show to polish up Taiwan's international reputation. But it purposely limits restraints. They're playing a poker game, and want to build their own technology, but have to take care of international relationships.''

Others have a more positive view of Taiwan's efforts to curb piracy.

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''There is a false impression of Taiwan as the piracy capital of the world,'' says Barry Lennon, chairman of the board and general manager of IBM Taiwan Corporation. ''I'm not denying that some piracy does go on, but let's not ignore all of the legitimate businesses which play by the rules.''

Mr. Lennon's sanguine view carries some weight, given that IBM is a major target of piracy. IBM recently approached 11 Taiwanese companies that it believed were pirating its computers.

Seven of the companies signed an agreement to stop producing IBM copies and publicly apologized for pirating IBM products. Four companies did not sign the agreement and their cases are pending in court.

Morgan of Users' Group points out that while software is pirated all over the world, computer hardware is copied almost exclusively in Southeast Asia.

Moreover, Taiwan's case is unique because of its lack of representation in international bodies such as the Paris Convention and Berne Convention. These groups deal with intellectual property rights, that is, rights to concepts and intellectual work rather than manufactured goods.

When the People's Republic of China became widely recognized as the legitimate government of China in 1979, Taiwan lost the right to send representatives to the organizations.

One need not go to Taiwan to buy a look-alike computer. A recent visitor to Hong Kong said much of the Taiwanese products are exported through Hong Kong intermediaries to other Southeast Asian markets.

Still, IBM's Lennon says the government has taken specific steps to protect intellectual property.

In 1981, the government began a determined campaign to curb counterfeiting activities. It passed regulations prohibiting the export of pirated goods and set up task force to uncover illegal manufacturers.

The revision of the Trademark Law in 1983 was another successful effort to discourage counterfeiting.

The most recent action is the revision of the copyright law. The proposed amendments would increase the number of items qualifying for copyright registration. Computer software, sound tracks, lectures, musical instruments, artistic performances, maps, and scientific or engineering designs and models would be protected by law.

The new draft also calls for harsher penalties in case of infringement. A steep fine and mandatory jail sentence would replace the slap on the wrist that offenders used to receive.

The proposed revision is well on its way to becoming a law. Jennifer Lin, an attorney at the law firm Baker & McKenzie, has monitored the progress of the amendment and says, ''It's virtually in the books. If all goes according to Plan A, it'll be signed by early January.''

In Taiwan, proposed legislation has three separate readings in the Legislative Branch. At the first reading, 45 out of the 90 legislators must be present in order to have a quorum, and 23 legislators must approve any changes. During the second reading, 80 members must support any additions to the original draft.

After the first reading, changes are rarely made. The third reading is merely a formality. The proposal is then sent to the Executive Branch to be signed into law by the president.

The amendments to the copyright law have had a first reading at the Legislative Branch. There was some discussion over the proposal by domestic computer manufacturers to remove protection for computer software from the revised copyright law, but no changes were made.

In addition to strengthening the laws that protect intellectual property, Taiwan has also built up the infrastructure needed to enforce the law.

Jeffrey Harris, chairman of the Intellectual and Industrial Property Right Protection Committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, said, ''You know, Taiwan has gotten a lot of bad press about copyright infringement. The rumors may have been true two years ago, but lots has happened since then.''

He then pointed out that the police, who two years ago were reluctant to conduct raids and track down counterfeiting businesses, are actively pursuing offenders today.

And the judicial system is efficient in handling copyright cases, he says. After a raid the case is usually in the courts within two weeks. ''The next best thing would be on-site courts,'' Mr. Harris quipped.

Public-awareness campaigns have also helped to discourage counterfeiting. Private organizations such as the National Anti-Counterfeiting Committee distribute literature in English and Chinese. The message is: Counterfeiting is a crime that will be punished.

The driving force behind Taiwan's crackdown on counterfeiting is its international reputation - and exports. An estimated 55 percent of the 1984 gross national product will be based on exports. Before the 1981 crackdown, other nations threatened to enforce quotas on Taiwan-made products in order to check the flow of pirated items.

The efforts to eliminate illegal business practices are being recognized, but still more can be done.

Public bureaus could be set up to help track down counterfeiters. At present, the holder of a copyright must initiate any legal action. If the man on the street sees evidence of piracy, he has no way of notifying the copyright owner. A public bureau could receive information regarding alleged copyright crimes and then pass it along to copyright owners who have also registered with the bureau.

Persons applying for copyright protection need to be familiar with the international and local laws pertaining to their products. As Barry Lennon at IBM concluded, ''A law is only a vehicle. By itself, it can accomplish nothing unless the people are aware of the law, and know how to use it.''

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