Overseas U.S. Government Personnel Involved in Efforts to Protect and Enforce Intellectual Property Rights

GAO-09-402R: Published: Feb 26, 2009. Publicly Released: Feb 26, 2009.

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Loren Yager
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Office of Public Affairs
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Intellectual property (IP) plays a significant role in the U.S. economy, and the United States is an acknowledged leader in its creation. IP is a category of legal rights that grant owners certain exclusive rights to intangible assets or products of the human intellect, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; and symbols, names, images, and designs. In its June 2008 testimony, GAO reported that U.S. intellectual property rights holders must compete with the global illicit market that is being spurred by economic incentives such as low barriers to entry into counterfeiting and piracy, high profits, and limited legal sanctions if caught. GAO further noted that technology has facilitated the reproduction and distribution of some IP-violating products. Moreover, intellectual property protection in parts of the world is inadequate. As a result, U.S. goods are subject to widespread piracy and counterfeiting in many countries, resulting in significant economic losses. In addition, many IP-violating products, such as counterfeit pharmaceuticals or auto parts, have the potential to threaten public health and safety in the United States and abroad. A wide range of federal agencies are involved in efforts to protect and enforce intellectual property rights with personnel posted domestically and overseas. In order to improve the coordination of the U.S. government's IP activities, Congress passed the Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act of 2008. Title III of that legislation created a new interagency intellectual property enforcement advisory committee composed of representatives of specified departments and agencies involved in IP enforcement. It authorizes the President to appoint an Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC) position within the Executive Office of the President to chair the new advisory committee. Among other things, the IPEC is to lead the committee in the development of a Joint Strategic Plan to reduce counterfeiting and other types of IP infringement in the United States and overseas, and to assist in the implementation of the Joint Strategic Plan when requested by advisory committee members.

Multiple U.S. government agencies have personnel posted overseas who play a role in protecting and enforcing intellectual property rights. However, the extent to which these personnel are focused on IP varies widely because of a variety of factors. The number of personnel at the overseas offices varies from agency to agency and also varies from office to office within an agency. Two of the agencies, United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), have established specific positions overseas that have IP protection and enforcement as their primary mission, and two other agencies, Office of the United States Trade Representatives (USTR) and Department of State (State), have staff members in Geneva who specialize in IP protection. For the majority of the types of U.S. government personnel, IP activities are just one part of a diverse portfolio of responsibilities. For instance, agents at Immigration and Custom's Enforcement's (ICE) attache offices may participate in IP-related investigations, but are also responsible for investigating national security threats, human trafficking, narcotics smuggling, child pornography/exploitation, and immigration fraud. As another example, Foreign Commercial Service officers are responsible for promoting and protecting U.S. commercial interests abroad and assisting U.S. companies as they seek to expand into foreign markets. Thus, assistance with intellectual property issues is just one of a range of services that Foreign Commercial Service officers provide to U.S. companies. Several factors influence the amount of time spent on IP activities among personnel overseas who have a range of responsibilities that extend beyond IP, according to officials we interviewed from various agencies.

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