At least one group of people looks set to benefit from Asia's current economic turmoil: the region's software pirates are gearing up for a year of record sales, say analysts here.
As Asia's weakened currencies push up the cost of imports and debt-laden corporations strive to limit costs, software piracy is a tempting short cut to savings.
"There is a definite link between a struggling economy and increases in piracy," warns Alex Mercer, an Australian marketing executive with the Business Software Alliance (BSA), an international anti-piracy lobby.
Not that software piracy is anything new. The BSA estimates that a third of global software piracy, representing around US$11 billion in lost sales worldwide, occurs in Asia. "And it's getting worse," grumbles Huey Tan, a BSA spokesperson in Bangkok.
For US software giants like Microsoft and Novell, both members of the BSA, it might have seemed that the situation could hardly be more grim.
In Vietnam, for example, 99 per cent of PCs are thought to run on pirated software. In China, potentially one of Asia's most exciting markets, the statistics are scarcely better - 96 per cent of all software is pirated there, says the BSA.
The problem is partly to do with perceptions. Many Asians are apparently still fuzzy about the idea of intellectual property and see little wrong in hunting down a software product at the lowest possible price, even if it is an illegal copy.
In Thailand, BSA officials estimate that the number of stores selling pirated software at one shopping centre in central Bangkok has risen from a dozen three years ago to more than 80 today. And this despite the introduction of a new copyright law in 1995, stipulating penalties of up to 4 years in prison and fines of $20,000.
At its most extreme fringe, the piracy issue takes on a nationalist flavour, pitching rich industrial nations against the poorer developing world. "I don't see why we in developing countries should pay the same amount as Americans for software," exclaimed one Thai journalist at a BSA press conference in Bangkok recently.
"There is a feeling among some people that the pirate software dealers are simply engaged in competitive business practices against companies who are charging too much for their product," agrees Dhiraphol Suwanprateep, a Thai lawyer working for the BSA.
His experience suggests that Thai courts prefer to be lenient with copyright offenders. "In practice, offenders are always given suspended sentences accompanied by fines that are less than 10 per cent of the maximum amount," says Dhiraphol. "Some officials say privately that intellectual property owners should reduce their prices for the local market."
The BSA maintains that prices and piracy shouldn't be linked. "If you have the money to buy a car, then you should have the money to pay for the gas to run it," points out Dhiraphol. "With computers it's the same. If you buy a computer, you have to plan for the cost of software."
Tan puts the issue in even starker terms. "Whether the economic situation is good or bad, people should realise that software piracy is illegal."
In public, Asian governments prefer to talk tough. Last week Thailand opened a special Intellectual Property Court, the second such institution in Southeast Asia (the other is in Hong Kong). "We're hoping that the new court will speed up the processing of around 30 cases that are pending at the moment," says Tan.
One explanation for Bangkok's move against intellectual property piracy is a US decision last April to keep Thailand on a watchlist of countries subject to investigation under section 301. "Under section 301 the President can ultimately impose retaliatory trade sanctions," warned US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky in a statement.
Even with an intellectual property court, software piracy will remain a problem in the years to come. "We are concentrating on both education and enforcement," says the BSA's Tan. "The emphasis is on making people understand the value of intellectual property. Right now we're focusing on businesses, government and universities."
Just in case the message doesn't get through, the BSA has set up its own hotline in Bangkok and is handing out cash rewards of up to $6,000 for information leading to the prosecution of software pirates or companies using illegal software.
"Software piracy is harmful to the economy. It deters foreign investment and stunts the development of local software," says the BSA's Alex Mercer. Maybe, but her message is one that many of Asia's struggling businesses may find hard it increasingly hard to take seriously.
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