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Dominicans Fight Trademark Piracy

July 17, 2000

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) _ Pirated videos dance across TV screens. Stores openly sell clothes falsely labeled Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, and pseudo-designers like ``Colvin″ Klein. Experts say four in five computer software packages are pirated.

Such is commerce in the Dominican Republic, among the nations where there is little respect for trademarks, copyrights and patents. But that could change as this poor Caribbean country tries to carve out a respectable niche in the emerging global economy.

President-elect Hipolito Mejia, who takes office Aug. 16, is preparing to crack down on piracy with stiff new penalties against counterfeiters, said trademark lawyer and presidential confidant Orlando Jorge Mera. A new law makes it easier for foreign firms to sue.

``It is important that the international community knows the Dominican Republic is going to have a real revolution in the area of industrial property rights,″ Jorge Mera said.

Indeed, the process began under President Leonel Fernandez, a pro-trade reformer who had some success streamlining the bureaucracy and weeding out corruption. The country is attracting more foreign investment and tourists and has greatly expanded its economy.

But the tradition of bootlegging runs deep in this nation of 8 million, making cleanup an uphill battle at best.

In a reflection of hope, the Tommy Hilfiger distributor here took out two full-page ads in a local paper last month, directing shoppers to the single store in Santo Domingo that sells the real products _ even though jeans with the distinctive Hilfiger red, white and blue logo are available all over the capital.

Maria Ocoa, a 22-year-old student, bought what she believed were Hilfiger jeans at another store where they sold for about a third the usual price. The store mentioned in the ad, she said, ``is too expensive... I never shop there. I liked these jeans, and they were cheap, so I bought them.″

For many businesses, legal recourse until recently was hardly more promising.

The House of Tobacco, the licensed local producer of Monte Cristo cigars, went to court 11 times in the past six years to fight counterfeiters, but attorney Marcos Troncoso said cases languished because judges were either corrupt or untrained.

``Many of the judges are much better prepared now,″ he said. ``And they’ve taken out a lot of the corrupt ones.″

Last month authorities finally acted, confiscating more than $5 million worth of fake cigars bound for the United States and Europe, closing five factories and arresting 20 people allegedly falsifying brands like Cuba’s Monte Cristo, Cohiba and Romeo y Julieta.

The government also says more than 70,000 videos have been confiscated and destroyed in the past year alone, and that agents have raided many businesses using unlicensed software and shut down their computers.

Enforcement agencies now have staff and resources.

``A few years ago, we didn’t even have an office,″ said Pedro Montes de Oca, director of the National Office of Authors’ Rights. ``Now we have trucks. We have trained inspectors ... who go out every day inspecting businesses.″

Still, he cautioned, ``we don’t have $100 million to invest in the fight against piracy when we need to invest that in the countryside so we can produce more food.″

In May, a law cracking down on trademark violations was enacted, and a copyright measure has been passed by the Senate and is being debated in the House of Deputies.

Under the new trademark law, a counterfeiter risks not only losing the merchandise but also up to two years in prison and a $6,000 fine _ a sum 30 times the average monthly salary and 1,000 times higher than the previous fine.

The legislation also eliminates a requirement that foreign firms put up a costly bond before filing a lawsuit.

Tommy Hilfiger lawyer Steve Gursky, who began dealing with Dominican violations several years ago and was ``disillusioned by the lack of assistance we got,″ said he was glad to hear of the changes but had not yet seen results.

The U.S. Embassy has maintained almost constant pressure on Dominican officials to get tough. But U.S. officials privately say the new laws still do not go far enough, particularly in protecting patents.

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On the Web:

U.S. report on Dominican Republic and trademarks:

http://www.ustr.gov/reports/nte/2000/contents.html

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