THE MAGAZINE

Intellectual Property: It Really is a Matter of Life and Death

By Peter Piazza

Protecting intellectual property rights may sound like arcana of interest to corporate attorneys rather than to law enforcement agents. After all, tracking down the sellers of fake watches or designer purses appears to pale in comparison to catching a murderer.

A new report from the Department of Justice proves otherwise. By pointing to tangible consequences of intellectual property theft that go far beyond loss of profits, the study illustrates that finding those who violate intellectual property rights might just be a life or death situation.

For example, the report notes that criminals "mislead the public into using potentially harmful items" because they have substituted "cheap filler for a product's real ingredients." It cites counterfeit versions of drugs meant to fight AIDS, heart disease, and Parkinson's disease.

In one case counterfeit pills were made of "a combination of floor wax and yellow lead-based paint normally used to mark roads." In another case, the report says that "counterfeit brake pads made of compressed sawdust resulted in the death of seven children."

The report makes a dozen recommendations "to further expand and strengthen the fight against intellectual property." One suggestion is to enhance Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property (CHIP) units, which are responsible for high-tech cases as well as for training prosecutors and investigators on issues they will need to understand to handle these cases.

There are currently more than a dozen such units around the United States. The report also calls for the creation of five new units in locations such as Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, California.

Another suggestion is to increase the number of FBI agents who are assigned to intellectual property investigations or tasked with collecting digital evidence.

The report also lays out principles that should be used to guide future legislation regarding the enforcement of intellectual property rights.

For example, law enforcement officials should be able to seize the equipment used in making counterfeit products. Another principle mentioned is that copyright law should recognize that copies of a copyrighted work are more valuable before copies of the work are released for sale to the general public.

@ Report of the Department of Justice's Task Force on Intellectual Property is available at SM Online.

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