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Feds unveil center to combat intellectual property theft

July 10, 2008 |  4:12 pm
National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center news conference

It looks like a cross between an airport duty-free shop, an electronics store, a pharmacy and a sports memorabilia display. In glass museum cases under bright lights throughout the new National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center sit items seized by federal agents: a Rolex watch, a Cisco router, a box of Tamiflu, a Troy Aikman football jersey.

They're all fakes.

Responding to an increase in such counterfeit goods, as well as congressional criticism of federal  enforcement efforts, a host of government agencies unveiled the center today in a nondescript office building just outside Washington, D.C. (Download a fact sheet about the center here.) About 40 people will be based there in cubicles interspersed with the glass cases, working together to track down and prosecute people who rip off trademarked and copyrighted products.

"With the increase in trade and the increase in economic activity both domestically and internationally, we have unfortunately seen a significant increase in the complexity and volume of criminal activity that is directed at intellectual property rights," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, noting that industry and trade associations have estimated that counterfeiting and piracy costs the U.S. economy between $200 billion and $250 billion a year in lost revenue.

For those who worry that this is a way for the government to target people who are file-sharing or illegally downloading music or movies,...

... that's not the intent, said Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"We're really targeting that kind of transnational criminal organization," said Myers. She's headed to Los Angeles and San Francisco next week to discuss the center and piracy issues in roundtable discussions with executives from entertainment, video game and computer industries. But given the scope of the problem, she said it's not surprising that some private groups, such as the Recording Industry Assn. of America, have stepped in with lawsuits and other attempts to stop it.

While pirated music, movies, video games and software receive a lot of the attention, Chertoff said that some of the increasing variety of counterfeit goods pose health and safety risks. Federal agents have seized toothpaste that contained antifreeze, pharmaceuticals with insufficient medicine to treat illnesses and counterfeit circuit breakers that could explode or spark fires. (Some of the seized products were displayed at today's news conference, pictured above.)

This year, government officials raised concerns about $76 million worth of counterfeit Cisco routers and other computer networking components seized as part of a joint U.S.-Canadian law enforcement initiative called "Operation Cisco Raider." Some of the components, which were made in China, were purchased by the the U.S. military, leading to worries that they could be used to gain access to secure computer networks.

The new intellectual property coordination center replaces a smaller one created in 2000 that largely focused on outreach to the private sector. In March, the Government Accountability Office criticized that approach, saying more federal agencies needed to be involved.

The new center was designed to address some of those concerns. It will house employees from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, the Food and Drug Administration, Commerce Department and U.S. Postal Inspection Division. The facility also has a high-tech command center with large video screens and computer monitors to help representatives of those agencies coordinate raids and other joint activities -- and maybe land some more souvenirs for the display cases.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Puzzanghera, a Times staff writer, covers tech and media policy from Washington, D.C.

Photo: From left, Keith Williams, president of Underwriters Laboratories; Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez; Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Credit:
Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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