Intellectual property rights enforcement in recent months once again became a source of unease in economic relations between the United States and Taiwan. The U.S. side, both openly and through messages passed quietly by various emissaries, made known its deepening impatience with the pace of the crackdown on the pirating of American companies' trademarks and copyrights. Frequently the response among Taiwan officials was an expression of wounded puzzlement: "We have done so much in recent years to strengthen our IPR protection. Why do the Americans never seem to be satisfied?"
Fortunately, it appears that this gap in perception and communications is being narrowed. The U.S. government and business community are fully aware of -- and appreciate -- the genuine efforts already undertaken by the Taiwan authorities. The passage of new legislation has gone a long way toward establishing the statutory framework needed to bring Taiwan up to international standards for IPR protection. But it is also clear that market conditions are constantly changing. The popularity of CDs, DVDs, and other optical media has opened new opportunities for the counterfeiters, and as other Asian countries have toughened their stance toward product piracy, a number of those engaging in this criminal activity have turned their attention back toward this market.
The resulting urgency of the IPR issue -- not only for U.S.-Taiwan relations but also for Taiwan's ability to build the sophisticated industries it needs for its future -- now appears to be well understood by the top leadership of the government. The strong positions taken by President Chen Shui-bian and Premier Yu Shyi-kun in recent public remarks have been highly reassuring. But the challenge, as always, is to put that high-level policy into concrete action at the enforcement level.
Justice Minister Chen Ding-nan put his finger on a basic problem when he complained that too many counterfeiting cases ended with judges letting the violators go with slap-on-the-wrist sentences. The hard work of police and prosecutors is for naught if the offenders are back in production the next day. The judiciary needs to be educated that stealing another person's intellectual property is just as severe a crime as robbing his physical possessions. And besides meting out stiff sentences, the judges should put the pirates out of business by ordering the confiscation and destruction of manufacturing equipment used to make illegal products.
Another priority should be executive and legislative branch cooperation to bring about speedy enactment of measures to make IPR violations subject to public prosecution. Currently the burden is on the victim to bring suit, and the police are unable to act until a complaint is filed. When those who are contemplating counterfeiting must face the risk of strict punishment -- and when law enforcement agencies are given full responsibility to stamp out violations, businessmen will recognize Taiwan as a place where they can invest in full confidence that their property rights are protected.