Taiwan's outspoken justice minister, under pressure at home for his crackdown on CD piracy, has aimed a rare diplomatic kick at the politically isolated island's most powerful ally, the United States. Chen Ding-nan, a former shoe salesman, has accused the United States of bullying the island over its efforts to combat CD piracy, a global issue that American firms claim costs the U.S. economy around $20 billion a year.
"The U.S. side knows we're working very hard. But as long as piracy exists, no matter how well we do, they always have something negative to say," Chen, 59, told Reuters in an interview late Thursday.
Even before Hollywood movies hit U.S. cinemas, pirated CD copies are easily available on the streets of Taipei, and other Asian cities, for less than US$1.50 each.
The United States, under pressure from major entertainment and software companies, has Taiwan on its 301 "priority watch list" of the world's worst copyright offenders.
Accusing Taiwan of being one of the three largest sources of pirated CDs, Washington has threatened to restrict the island's trade access to the U.S. market.
"The constant threats, like the 'special 301' and (a refusal to discuss) a free trade agreement, go too far. In my opinion they are bullying," said Chen, who heads Taiwan's anti-piracy drive.
The United States is Taiwan's second-largest export market and a key guarantor of its security against mainland China, which sees the island as a rogue province.
The Taiwan cabinet ordered this week a crackdown on exports of pirate CDs, called for tougher copyright laws and said it might boost the reward for tip-offs that identify illicit compact disc factories.
CAUGHT IN MIDDLE
Chen said pressure from Taiwan's main trading partner and arms supplier was difficult to resist but he also faced the ire of Taiwanese consumers who enjoyed cheap access to software from the likes of U.S. giant Microsoft Corp. Counterfeiters taunted the minister by putting the message "Come and catch me, Chen Ding-nan" on pirated discs of the new James Bond thriller 'Die Another Day' last month and students have targeted the minister in protests.
"(Students) call the Ministry of Justice the hatchet man of American imperialism and labeled me the super salesman of Microsoft," Chen said with a grin. The value of piracy cases found by Taiwanese police grew 22 percent to T$10 billion (US$287 million) last year, Chen said, answering U.S. criticism that the island was weak on the issue.
Taipei is keen to sign a free trade agreement with the United States but Washington insists the piracy issue is resolved first. The Taiwanese government ordered the crackdown ahead of an annual report on intellectual property piracy by the U.S. Trade Representative, due in the next few months.
Chen conceded there was room for improvement in the battle against piracy. He said 70 percent of CD counterfeiters prosecuted last year received a jail sentence of less than six months and many walked away with a small fine. "We are doing the best we can. But given the current size of the police force and the number of prosecutors we have, it is difficult to launch an all-out effort against piracy," he said.
"It also requires coordinating efforts of other agencies."