10:02 AM Oct 9, 1996


By Roberto Verzola* Third World Network Features

Manila, Oct (TWN) -- Piracy used to mean the highjacking of ships on the high seas. Now, the US uses the word to refer to what everybody -- including most governments -- in Asia is doing: copying software for use with their computers.

Mr Ron Eckstrom of the US lobby group Business Software Alliance explains why they are lobbying Asian governments to clamp down on software copying. 'Copying licensed software is a form of stealing,' he says. 'If you cannot afford to buy a BMW, you have no right to go into anybody's garage and steal one.'

In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the US itself was a centre of piracy of British books and publications. US publishers justified their piracy by saying that the American public should not be denied access to British knowledge and literature just because they couldn't afford British prices. Thus the US publishers pirated British materials at will.

[Only in this decade did the US become a party to the Berne Convention on copyright.]

When the US couldn't afford BMWs, they went into British garages to steal some. Now that Mr Eckstrom has a BMW, he doesn't want anybody to steal it.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Federico Macaranas, who must imagine himself to be under the employ of the US foreign affairs office, hastens to add, 'Let's never use poverty as an instrument to steal.' It nicely complements Eckstrom's admonition not to steal a BMW if you're too poor to afford it.

If it is a sin for the poor to steal from the rich, it must be a much bigger sin for the rich to steal from the poor.

Don't rich countries pirate our best scientists, engineers, doctors, nurses, and programmers? When global corporations come to operate in the Philippines, don't they pirate the best people from local firms? If it is bad for poor countries like us to pirate the intellectual property of rich countries, isn't it a lot worse for rich countries like the US to pirate our intellectuals? In fact, we are benign enough to take only a copy, leaving the original behind; they are so greedy they take away the originals and leave nothing for us.

Undersecretary Macaranas, who seems to take seriously his role as US spokesman, says, 'Lack of technological and financial resources should no longer be used to justify piracy.'

His comment reminds us that much of the world's technological and financial resources are held by rich countries, and poor countries want affordable access to these resources. It also reminds us that others had earlier used their lack of resources to justify piracy.

The US, for instance, enjoys a huge lead in satellite and communications technologies. When the US launched spy satellites into space, a number of poorer countries protested. One could imagine them complaining: 'Why are you taking aerial photos of our territory? You are taking national proprietary information; that's piracy!'

The US response, in effect, said, 'We have the sovereign rights to take photos of every country, including yours. You are even welcome to buy them, if you can afford them.'

And because they couldn't afford BMW and satellite technologies, poor countries had no choice but to pay through the nose for Landsat photographs of their own territories.

The US then went on from military to commercial satellites, transmitting video programmes into other countries. Again, one could imagine more conservative countries complaining: 'Why send us these programmes full of violence, crime, illicit sex and other social ills? Please stop, they violate our standards of morality.'

The US response, in effect, said, 'Haven't you heard of the free flow of information? It means we have the right to transmit video programmes to you, even if you consider them objectionable.'

In the course of time, some local people actually developed a taste for these US programmes. They taped the US video transmissions and sold the tapes locally or showed them on local TV.

Now, it was the United States' turn to complain: 'Why are you copying our licensed materials without authorization? You are pirating our intellectual property rights!'

Piracy is also an emerging issue in biotechnology, another field that is very much a monopoly of advanced countries like the US.

US researchers roam the globe looking for plants, animals, or microorganisms which show commercial promise. Many of these are indigenous herbal plants and concoctions, whose pharmacological properties are now the subject of intense interest by US biotech companies. Researchers take the samples out, often without the consent of the host country, isolate the active ingredients, synthesise them in the laboratory, and patent the resulting formulations.

This is known as biopiracy, a widespread practice by rich countries.

Yet, when our government licenses local firms to copy pharmaceutical formulations of global corporations, to reduce the cost of medicine for our people, the giant drug companies cry 'piracy'.

In short, the US has finely tuned the definition of piracy, allowing it when it is good for rich countries like them, but banning it when it is good for poor countries like us.

This is the definition that Mr Eckstrom and Mr Undersecretary Macaranas, two spokesmen for US interests, now want us and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to embrace.

(* Roberto Verzola is Chairman of People's ACCESS in the Philippines, which provides computer training, electronic communications networking and other services to people's organisations and service institutions)