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Software pirates back in Lebanon

Conflict has led to soaring piracy levels, bureau chief claims

Software piracy has soared in Lebanon since the recent conflict, the head of the police unit set up to combat high-tech crime in the country told IT Weekly in an exclusive interview.

Major Elie Bitar, who leads the Lebanon High Tech and Intellectual Property (IP) Crime Bureau, said he is determined to stamp out the rampant piracy across his country — which according to industry groups currently stands at around 75% for business software alone.

According to a report by the Intellectual International Property Alliance (IIPA) the country suffered losses of US$17.9million due to pirated business software in 2005 — compared to just US$1.1million in 2001.

The bureau was formed in March this year as part of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces and has already carried out over 200 raids and seized 150,000 pirated items — over 20,000 of which carried pirated software.

It acts on complaints made by rights holders such as members of the Business Software Alliance (BSA).

“It’s a huge business and there are many perpetrators from all levels of society,” sad Bitar.

Before the recent war, claimed Bitar, the unit had made significant inroads into reducing the country’s piracy and had received reports from rights holders that their revenue in the country was increasing as a result.

He admitted however that the war has created an environment where piracy can flourish.

“As you know our bureau started taking action before the recent war in July-August and the right holders informed us that there was a positive impact of which it was revealed in their monthly income reports.”

“But during this war many perpetrators took advantage of it and restarted their illegal business.

“For the time being we are launching many campaigns and raids; we seized before the war about 100,000 CDs and DVDs of all kinds and they were destroyed. Now, after war has ended we seized about 50,000 CDs and DVDs; however we still have a lot of work to accomplish,” Bitar added.

Another obstacle is the fact that many pirated CDs and DVDs are copied and stored in Palestinian refugee camps in the country — over which Bitar’s unit has little authority.

According to Bitar piracy levels have traditionally been so high in the country because of conflict in the country.

“The level is high because Lebanon was in war for more than 30 years and there was no special and dedicated bureau for this type of fraud,” he acknowledged.

In 1999 Lebanon’s revised intellectual property law was enacted, containing a provision for piracy of software and tougher penalties for perpetrators.

However, although a number of successful prosecutions have been carried out against perpetrators in the country, critics argue that judges should impose harsher sentences on those responsible.

Bitar claimed that the high piracy level is having a significant impact on the country’s economy and is one of the reasons why Lebanon has not yet been granted membership of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“IP crimes are causing a negative impact on Lebanon’s economy for many reasons: [there is no] tax income on most of the fake products and Lebanon cannot be a member of the WTO unless serious action is taken by the Lebanese authority,” he said.

When IT Weekly contacted a spokeswoman and economic and commercial specialist from the US Embassy in Lebanon she said this was an issue for the US.

“For the US, protection of intellectual property rights is at the top of its list of needed reforms for Lebanon’s WTO accession,” she said.

“The widespread availability of [pirated] optical media, and business entertainment software are among the key problems with Lebanon’s IPR regime.”

More effective IPR protection and enforcement will improve Lebanon’s attractiveness for high technology investment, the spokeswoman noted.

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