Software Pirates Pile Up Profits in Afflicted Asia Cheap CDs Prove Irresistible

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Hunkered behind his sales counter, software pirate Amorn Srichawla is digging in for a fight: "My information is that there'll be a raid next week."

At Panthip Plaza, a shopping center specializing in computer gear, antipiracy raids are a seasonal affair. "The police come about twice a year, once in June or July and then before the new year," says Mr. Amorn, who owns eight software stores that sell mainly pirated compact discs. "We know because the police tell us."

For the software pirates of Thailand, cat-and-mouse raids are just part of their business. Copyright infringement, say the pirates, is here to stay. The incentives for buyers and sellers are just too great. "It now costs as little as 50 cents to produce a pirate CD," says an American analyst here. For $10, computer buffs can pick up CDs bundled with thousands of dollars worth of illegally copied software. "You can buy Oracle's database system for $25, whereas it would cost you around $20,000 to buy the real thing," Amorn says. Tumbling Asian currencies, creating huge price advantages, along with declining corporate profits, are conspiring to make software piracy in Asia more tempting than ever. "There is a definite link between a struggling economy and increases in piracy," warns Alex Mercer, an Australian marketing executive at the Business Software Alliance (BSA), an international antipiracy lobby. But while Asian pirates fill their pockets, American software developers complain that they are losing billions in missed sales. The BSA, an alliance of major American software companies, estimates worldwide losses to be around $11 billion. Asia alone accounts for a third of that figure. "And it's getting worse," grumbles Huey Tan, a BSA spokesman in Bangkok. In Vietnam, for example, 99 percent of personal computers are thought to run on pirated software. In China, potentially one of Asia's most exciting markets, the statistics are scarcely better: 96 percent of all software is pirated there, says the BSA. One problem has to do with perceptions. Many Asians are still fuzzy about the concept of intellectual property rights and see little wrong in hunting down a software product at the lowest possible price, even if it is an illegal copy. "It's just not fair," Amorn groans. Software companies "should reduce their prices. If I sold the original software, I wouldn't even sell 10 percent of what I'm selling now. "Look at {Microsoft Corp. chairman} Bill Gates; he's the richest man in the world." Dhiraphol Suwanprateep, a Thai lawyer working for the BSA in Bangkok, agrees. "There is a feeling among some people that the pirate software dealers are simply engaged in competitive business practices against companies who are charging too much for their product," he says. …