MANY singers, musicians, writers, film and TV play producers and poets have suffered because of the piracy in our country, poor implementation of copyright laws and lack of awareness among these artists and scholars about how to protect their intellectual property rights.

Though these artists did not lobby for the protection of their rights, a light can be seen on the other side of the tunnel. This light has been lit under growing international pressure and strong lobbying by the foreign and local industry at home.

The story started some 10 years ago when majority of the countries in the world committed to take measures for protecting intellectual property rights (IPR). WTO gave a whole decade to countries like Pakistan to take effective measures to check the violation of IPR.

Little progress was made on this front in the first eight years, but then the government rushed to meet the deadline set at the close of 2005 for streamlining the IPR laws and the delivery system. The good news is that it did make it to the photo finish on time.

It took quite a while for the government to bring all the IPR related departments under one organisation. Copyright registration was under ministry of education, trade marks the ministry of commerce and patent registration under the ministry of industry. In the first place it was a battle with various ministries who wanted to protect their respective turfs — they fought overtly and covertly.

When the government bulldozed all the objections to meet its international commitment, another tussle started. This time on the issue that who should control the newly formed Intellectual Property Organisation of Pakistan (IPO). The issue was finally resolved by the prime minister and IPO has been placed directly under the Cabinet Division. This means that IPO would be answerable directly to the PM.

According to IPO Director General Mr Yasin Tahir, “three parallel actions were taken by the government to meet its commitment to protect IPRs: one, establishment of the IPO as a policy making and regulating organisation; two, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) was given the authority to enforce the IPR laws and regulations; and three, customs was activated to check inflow and outflow of counterfeit and pirated products.”

Raids by FIA on major producers of pirated films, music and software CDs and an effective check on the smuggling of pirated material to developing countries paid back. It brought kudos to the government from international bodies for its “outstanding performance,” Mr Tahir said.

All these efforts have brought some success. Pakistan’s name was struck out from the “priority watch list” of the US Commerce Department. Pakistan had remained on this 14-countries list for a long time as one of the major source of pirated and counterfeit products. Pakistan is not in uncomfortable company of such countries as: Russia, China, India, and Philippines. Now we have been moved to the ordinary watch list of a larger club of 45 countries.

It’s a long journey ahead. “The most important task ahead,” says the chairman of the newly-formed IPO, Mr Waseem Haqqie, “is to create awareness, first about why intellectual property rights should be protected. It is not only the general public which has to be informed and educated on this subject. I have come across a number of decision-makers in the government and high judiciary who think that, “intellectual property rights protection is the racket of MNCs to protect their fat profits.” And that as a developing country we cannot afford to indulge in what they call, “an expensive moral luxury.”

There are three popular arguments against the protection of IPRs. One well-meaning argument against protection of copyrights of books and software is that we are a poor nation and to educate our children “we should beg, borrow and steal.”

Similarly, this section of populist intelligentsia says that we cannot afford expensive medicines hence patent rights should not be given to pharmaceutical companies who develop these medicines. There are also many opinion makers who say that people make counterfeit because big companies make expensive products and high profit.

Almost all the protagonists who are against IPR protection have one common concern: the welfare of the poor.

Basically, there is a confusion about the whole issue of public welfare. The right of people to have education, the right of the people to have access to knowledge and the right of the people to have inexpensive healthcare and to have less expensive consumer products cannot be undermined.

But it is the duty of the state to provide education and healthcare to the people and not of the private sector, writers, artists, and scientists who suffer at the hands of counterfeiters and copyright pirates.

Because of piracy of books and artworks, how many of our creative people can live off the income from the wonderful artworks produced by them? Why our text books are shoddy? Isn’t it because we don’t pay our scholars decently and their books are pirated overnight?

As for the foreign text books mostly used at a higher educational level, why the government cannot buy their publishing rights to produce them cheaper. In many cases it is only the middleman and those who indulge in piracy who actually make the money.

The issue of patented medicine is identical. Much is said about patent protection that it bars the local producers from the market and gives the companies the rights to sell at high prices. The fact is that out of around 1000 basic drugs registered with the ministry of health, only five per cent are patent protected. So there is a vast field open for the local industry. The patent rights are also not for a life time, but a for fixed period.

Finally, the argument that counterfeiting is encouraged because big companies sell their products at high prices. The fact is that nobody stops other entrepreneurs to introduce their products and sell them at any price But they have no right to take a piggy-back ride on other companies who make investment in building brands.

Opinion

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