The United States said on Monday it planned to beef up criminal laws to provide stiffer penalties for copyright thieves, including raising the maximum penalty to life imprisonment and seizing the illicit profits of offenders.
The move comes as Washington intensifies its anti-piracy campaign abroad, including dragging China to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for alleged copyright abuse.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he transmitted to Congress a new legislative initiative that would give authorities more muscle to act against counterfeiters and copyright pirates, especially on health and safety cases.
The "Intellectual Property Protection Act of 2007" would increase the maximum penalty from 10 years to 20 years’ imprisonment for counterfeiting offences if the defendant "knowingly or recklessly causes serious bodily injury or death," the Justice Department said.
It would be raised further to life imprisonment if the defendant knowingly or recklessly causes or attempts to cause death, it said.
Stronger penalties would be meted out for repeat offenders of the copyright laws.
"And the bill would hit the criminals in their wallets by strengthening restitution provisions, and making sure they forfeit all of their illicit profits as well as any property used to commit their crimes," Gonzales told a coalition against counterfeiting and piracy of the US Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber is the biggest business lobby group in the United States, representing more than three million business groups.
Gonzales said the administration of President George W. Bush was giving special emphasis on prosecuting health and safety cases in its bid to protect American businesses and their intellectual property.
"While crimes like IP theft may appear harmless to some, we know that the reality is much different. Imagine a heart patient undergoing emergency surgery at a hospital that unknowingly purchased substandard counterfeit surgical equipment or medications," he said.
"These crimes, as we all know, also have a direct impact on our economy, costing victims millions of dollars and, if left unchecked, diminishing entrepreneurship," he added.
Based on Gonzales’s figures, the United States convicted 57 percent more defendants for criminal copyright and trademark offenses in 2006 than a year earlier.
Of those convictions, the number of defendants receiving prison terms of more than two years increased even more sharply – up 130 percent, he said.
"IP theft is not a technicality, and its victims are not just faceless corporations – it is stealing, and it affects us all," he said.
"Those who seek to undermine this cornerstone of US economic competitiveness believe that they are making easy money; that they are beyond the law. It is our responsibility and commitment to show them that they are wrong," he said.
Counterfeiting and piracy cost the United States economy about $250 billion annually, have led to the loss of more than 750,000 American jobs and exposes consumers to dangerous and defective products, the US Chamber of Commerce said in a report.
The United States last month filed a case against China at the WTO over "rampant" counterfeiting of US movies, books, music and other intellectual property and Beijing’s failure to stop it.
Gonzales also said this summer, the US Justice Department would be establishing a second intellectual property law enforcement coordinator in Eastern Europe in Sophia, Bulgaria.
Last year, the department placed its first coordinator in Bangkok, Thailand.
Next week, Gonzales said he would be discussing ways to improve intellectual property enforcement with his G8 colleagues in Munich.