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Justice Dept. task force to combat IP theft

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Despite previous efforts, the piracy of U.S. movies, music and other products remains a serious problem, according to the federal government.

The Justice Department recently announced it's forming a task force to combat intellectual property crime, both domestically and internationally.

It will seek to coordinate with state, local and international law enforcement to tighten security.

"The rise in intellectual-property crime in the United States and abroad threatens not only our public safety but also our economic well-being," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. "The Department of Justice must confront this threat with a strong and coordinated response."

Each year, U.S. law enforcement seizes millions of dollars worth of counterfeit clothing and footwear, unauthorized copies of movies and music and bogus prescription medications.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 14,841 intellectual-property rights seizures in fiscal year 2009, with a domestic value of $260.7 million.

"Intellectual property is a major U.S. asset, so (the government is) trying to make sure we get protection for U.S. companies who are the manufacturers and owners of the products," said Andrea Johnson, a professor at California Western School of Law.

Johnson, who is director of the school's center for IP, technology and telecommunications, said only 1 percent of all companies export out of the United States, in part because of the concerned over piracy.

Exporting technology is important, however as it increases market demand, in turn, increases jobs in America, Johnson said. A Bio 2009 member survey found that within 18 months of exporting their technology, a majority of biotech companies saw their workforce increase exponentially.

"So if we're trying to create jobs by exporting technology, you have to find a way to protect IP," she said.

Stopping illegal branding also is important, not only for owners but for the public interest, according to Robert Taylor, a partner in the Palo Alto office of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo.

"There has always been the notion that misbranding something is like forging a check," he said. "You don't have the assurance of quality. So you basically start destroying the consumer's faith in the integrity of the product they're buying.

"There's been lots of effort by the government and people who rely on copyrights to deal with (piracy) through civil law, regulations and injunctions," Taylor added, "so I'm not surprised that the government is placing a bigger emphasis on criminal law. The deterrent of watching someone go to jail has a more sobering effect on infringers than watching someone pay a lot money."

Laws and regulations aren't the only ways to curb counterfeiting, according to California Western's Johnson.

The reason many people purchase bootleg copies, she said, is because they cannot afford the retail price.

Companies in the United States have tried to address this problem by offering certain products exclusively at discount stores like Wal-Mart and Target to make them available to a wider audience. This way, the owner still gets some profits, although it might not be the maximum. Johnson said this model could be tried in other countries.

"I don't think there's one solution," she said. "You have to do a combination of changing the business model to make it affordable for more people; put in tracking devices so you can understanding where the goods are going; and have legal remedies to be able to enforce the law so people can have assurances if they put goods and services in the market."

The Justice Department task force is a good step.

"It definitely sends a strong message to those within the U.S. and abroad that America is serious about protecting intellectual property," she said.

California Western will be holding a trans-border licensing conference from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on March 27.

The program, "Creating a Job Initiative: Expanding into Global Markets through Transborder Licensing," will bring together legal, industry and government experts to discuss how to create jobs through licensing technology abroad.

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