Tuesday, 22 April 2008

EIPIN Windsor: Counterfeit scare-mongering which might actually be real

Last weekend was the final of this year's EIPIN (European Intellectual Property Institutes Network) symposiums*, and was held this year in lovely surroundings of the former royal residences at Cumberland Lodge near Runnymede. This time the main emphasis was on criminal enforcement of IP, and the industry folks were out in full force. Here's some snippets from a talk given by John Anderson of the Global Ant-Counterfeiting Group:

- Counterfeiting caused the Paris air disaster

- Counterfeiting supported the 1993 WTC bombings

- Counterfeiting means that toys containing dangerous materials are being imported into the west

- Counterfeiting may be costing the world economy between 500 and 1000 billion US dollars a year

- Counterfeiting is connected to drugs, gun-running, people-trafficking, and pornography

Of course, the criminal enforcement people were right behind this with their own spin on things:

- Counterfeiting and piracy are big problems

- We don't know how big

- We need more resources to find out

- But we're sure they're big problems

Now, it would be very easy to dismiss all this as scare-mongering by industry and law-enforcement lobbyists, but these suppositions should be examined in turn to see which actually hold any water.

Firstly the implication that counterfeiting is funding terrorism. The only instance of an actually internationally recognised terrorist organisation receiving funding from counterfeiting was the IRA, and this only during the period after funding from NORAID and Colonel Gaddafi began to dry up. It should also be noted that the IRA has always straddled the line between organised crime and political insurgency and it should not surprise anyone that this was the case. Whilst it may be true that some of the men involved in the 1993 WTC bombings did work selling counterfeit T-shirts on Canal Street, this is a long way from showing that the bombings were even partly funded by counterfeiting.

On the other hand, the Italian Mafia has long been known to be involved in piracy and counterfeiting, and whereas the IRA might have been a terrorist organisation which was close to being simply a criminal one, the Mafia has not been above using terror to achieve political gains either. The fact that counterfeit goods are often found along with pornography, drugs, guns, and are often touted on the streets by illegal immigrants shows that the main thing which connects all of them is smuggling by criminal gangs. This is not to say that preventing one would prevent the others, but that the success of one may promote the success of the others. At the very least there is something of a connection.

On the matter of counterfeit parts causing accidents, this should not be overly exaggerated. The Concorde crash was caused by an 'unauthorised' component falling off another aircraft and exploding the tyres of the Concorde, puncturing the fuel tank and causing it to explode - but the tyres had exploded many times before. The fact that the part which punctured the tyres was 'unauthorised' may have had absolutely nothing to do with the series of events that caused the accident. On a more general note, though, counterfeit parts do cause accidents, the failure of counterfeit car brake disks being a prime example, and this is a real concern.

That counterfeit products may contain harmful substances should surprise no-one, but as last year's Mattel recalls showed, genuine articles may also contain harmful substances.

Turning to how big this problem might actually be, the one thing that struck me as I listened to the speakers is that there is little in the way of accurate figures to measure this by. Whilst the man from the OECD put the figure as 'up to 200 billion', there is little in the way of solid evidence to base this on and it is the result of much estimation and guess-work. So whilst it may even be as high as the figures that John Anderson gave (some 7% of world trade), it might also be a lot less - and is it really worth spending the money to find out?

At any rate, whilst we may not be in danger of being murdered in our beds by counterfeiters, it is a problem which requires some kind of investment to address it.

* The second-to-last was in Strasbourg - long story short: Europe needs to get its stuff together and setup a real European patent court. Beautiful city by the way.

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