Moving IP Crime


Michael Ellis
A-CAPP Center Law Enforcement Fellow, Chairman of the International IP Crime Investigators College (IIPCIC) and Former Assistant Director of Police Services at INTERPOL

Editor’s Note: Coming from a law enforcement perspective after a prestigious career fighting international illicit trade, the author challenges brand protection practitioners to re-think some traditional views and hesitancies to bring IP crimes into the light so they are prioritized.

Many brand protection practitioners may ask themselves why intellectual property (IP) theft remains in the shadows, especially relative to more familiar types of organized crime? In answer, I suggest there are three separate areas where the brand protection community could change the perception of IP violations as a low-priority crime. These are collaboration, understanding the broader challenges of law enforcement, and increased training on IP issues.

Collaboration for Data’s Sake

How different the perception of IP theft would be if the brand protection community were able to work together and accurately measure the impacts on a growing economy of IP theft, or impacts on growth and investment opportunities.

Practitioners generally recognize that the majority of governmental organizations and business executives struggle with the importance enforcement of IP rights. Such struggles stem at least in part from the lack of data and information regarding the true dimensions and bottom-line effects of IP theft.   

If practitioners could provide decision makers with a broader understanding of IP theft, then the true benefits of building an effective multi-layered IP protection strategy would be better understood.

Brands in certain industries, such as pharmaceutical, do collaborate closely to provide data through industry representative bodies. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and European Intellectual Property Office have also sought to provide data on product counterfeiting. Yet the question remains why the brand protection community has not sought to form an independent coalition, which could act as a neutral assessment facility. For example, imagine a “Data Collection Institute” funded collectively by brand owner contributors, and staffed with a representative steering committee and independent elected Chairperson. Subject to the requisite legal guidelines and agreements this body could audit, research, and report on global statistics, trends, patterns, and smuggling techniques for the interest of all parties. (An ongoing A-CAPP Center project is gathering data on U.S. product counterfeiting schemes from 2000 to 2015.)

A Challenging Environment

Law enforcement globally is facing some of its most challenging times since the end of World War II. Many would venture to suggest that the world is at its highest state of instability since that time, with so many regional political uprisings prompting waves of humanity seeking safety and security, and with concerted acts of terror. While we strive to protect IP and trade secrets, the advancements of web-based technology, the speed of movement of money, goods, the mobility of criminals, and the globalization of trade, means that we face an ever challenging and evolving problem. 

Environmental crimes, cyber-crimes, human trafficking, crimes against humanity, and acts of global terrorism are all personally identifiable and are graphically reported. In contrast, most IP crime cases receive little or no media attention, meaning any opportunities for the IP community to publicize the impact of this crime among decision makers and the public is lost. Some brands may also fear the negative impact on brand equity resulting from publicity of IP crimes against them. Brand protection professionals may share significant investigations and cases with each other, but in most cases feel barred from sharing these stories with the public.

Criminal investments in transnational organized crime syndicates are spreading and becoming more sophisticated. The same globalization affecting IP issues is causing traditional, non-traditional, and transnational crimes all to grow. As a result, the landscape of modern policing is changing. As policing priorities change, and as policing resources (including funds and manpower) are stretched to meet broader demands, brand protection practitioners must fight hard to keep IP crime a priority for law enforcement. When asking why IP theft remains largely in the shadows, brand protection practitioners could also question what emphasis and efforts they are making in providing IP crime information to wider media circles. 

I would encourage the private sector to launch and support a strategic long-term communications campaign, built in partnership with all enforcement stakeholders and with costs shared among all interested parties. “IP ambassadors” delivering key messages on social media could help raise public and media awareness of IP theft and related issues. Typical ambassadors could be well-known figures from sports, films, or the music industry who reach out to younger generations with key phases to think twice about spending money on organized crime.  While some industries, notably the motion-picture industry, have had similar successful campaigns in the past, I would invite practitioners to consider the benefits of supporting a longer-term campaign for raising awareness of IP-rights violations. (For an example of one such campaign, see the article in this issue of the BPP about the International Trademark Association’s “Unreal” campaign).

Increased Training

As a final component to raising greater awareness, brands could look towards increased IP training, aimed at enhancing all levels of policing capacity, and targeting especially countries with relatively weak law enforcement capabilities. Even if not having significant business interests in a particular country, unless a firm engages with competent law enforcement authorities in that country it may find its products are intercepted and released while in transit or taken in another seizure due to lack of knowledge regarding the genuine brand. Product counterfeiters have no respect for borders. Unless authorities have proper training, they may take action, or fail to do so, out of ignorance.  

With continued targeted training programs, highlighting the increasingly international nature of IP theft and the risk to the private sector, brand owners can continue to assess, adjust, and improve prioritization and international reactions to the latest IP crime trends.  

Moving Forward

As IP criminals continue to find new ways of penetrating legitimate supply chains, brand protection practitioners must continue to find ways to elevate the priority of addressing this crime, whose dimensions have yet to reach their full potential. 

International enforcement agencies such as INTERPOL and United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recognize that as criminals take advantage of new technologies law enforcement must share information, resources, and skills to fight crime. INTERPOL and the UNODC have a need for joint complementary activities, including those addressing illicit trafficking and organized crime, as one of several common thematic areas.    (Interpol Secretary General Mr. Jurgen Stock speech 23rd May 2016 at the UNODC-INTERPOL Joint Action Plan Making A Strategic Global Partnership Operational)

Endeavors such as the International IP Crime Investigators College (IIPCIC), an INTERPOL initiative in co-operation with UL University, can make an impact. The IIPCIC offers courses at no cost for law enforcement students in French, English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin, with more languages being rolled out in the future. Private sector organizations also have the opportunity to take the training and to build their own specialized training modules, which are available on IIPCIC to law enforcement agencies around the world.

Because IP crime can pose global threats, brand protection practitioners know that the solution to it is cooperation at the international level. By collectively assembling data, working on a coordinated global media campaign to raise awareness of IP theft, or working with public and private partners to improve training on these issues, we can bring IP theft issues out of the shadows.