Just three months ago, Indonesia's music stores were awash with bootleg audio-tapes, from Mozart to U2, and priced as low as $1.50. This Asian nation, the world's fifth most populated, was tagged by the Western recording producers as the largest exporter of pirated cassettes. But the plug has been pulled on the lucrative business, shelves emptied of illegal tapes, and foreign tourists forced to buy cheap copies of their favorite songs in Bangkok and a few other Asian cities.
Indonesia's turnabout on protecting the copyrights of musical artists marks a significant shift in official thinking, note Western diplomats, and could soon be extended to computer software, videotapes, books, as well as other so-called intellectual property such as patents and trademarks, designed in the West to spur individual creativity.
``Indonesia adopted another Western idea,'' says one diplomat, ``that the individual should be protected at the expense of the group. ... The country has been a big-league counterfeiter. Now it is joining the international community.''
Full protection for foreign artists is not yet complete. A copyright law was passed last September, which protects domestic artists, but its implementation for foreigners requires bilateral agreements.
The first pact, signed in April between Indonesia and the 12-nation European Community (EC), only covers musical recording. The goverment set last June 1 as the deadline for all tapes using music from EC countries to be pulled from stores. Since many tapes were mixed with American music, all foreign-music tapes were removed.
A similar agreement with the United States is expected by the end of the year, but it will likely cover software, videos, books, and other property now copyrighted in the US. Lost sales caused by pirated materials of US material are estimated at $250 million, equal to about one-third of all US goods legally sold to Indonesia each year.
Indonesia is not a member of the two major global agreements on intellectual property, the Bern Convention and the Universal Copyright Convention.
Indonesia's image as a world capital of pirated tapes was highlighted when Indonesian producers were accused of selling tapes with the famous song ``We are the world'' without turning over profits to a campaign to end hunger in Africa.
The embarrassment helped form a consensus in Jakarta, spurred on by a realization that Indonesia's own artists and authors were hurt by pirated material. Indonesian recording companies are now seeking agreements to pay royalties on copied tapes, which could raise prices to $3 to $5 a cassette.
The International Federation of Phonographers and Videogram Producers hopes that Indonesia's tape exports, estimated in the past at between $5 million and $30 million a year, will now be put to a stop. Penalties for selling pirated tapes in Indonesia were set at seven years in prison and a $60,000 fine.