"We cannot sit back and watch our work being pirated," Abed Hlatshwayo, Microsoft's anti-piracy manager for eastern and southern Africa, said at a recent workshop held in Kenya to tackle the problem.

 

Speaking at the meeting of representatives of global software companies, Hlatshwayo said the region is awash in illegal copies and downloads worth more than $12.4bn.

 

He also said that as the continent looks to information technology to help jumpstart development and reduce poverty, African countries must enhance and enforce intellectual property laws if it is to truly benefit from new innovations.

 

"We need to change this so that we can all contribute to the growth of our economies through an effective intellectual property rights framework, provide more education, encourage better asset management for business and enforcement."

 

A 10 per cent reduction by 2009 in piracy could spark growth in the information technology business and increase tax revenue by some $22.5bn in the Middle East and Africa, according to studies, he said.

 

Piracy 'endemic'

 

However, convincing the growing number of African computer users to work with legitimate software will be difficult, experts say.

 

"Piracy has become a threat to copyright-based industry as it has wiped out the incentives for creators, which were offered by the copyright protection"

Edward Sigei, copyright lawyer

"People don't want to spend money on something tangible which is easily available," said James Kusewa, an operating environment and messaging business devevolpment manager for Dimensions Data, an East African IT firm.

 

"It's hard, but software companies need to convince people to budget for IT and buy software from correct channels so that they can get the value of genuine software like security updates, product upgrades, warranty, technical support... that can't run on pirated copies," he told AFP.

 

In many African countries, piracy is so common, that it is virtually impossible to find legal copies of software, according to industry surveys.

 

In Zimbabwe, 90 per cent of software in use is estimated to be pirated.

 

Botswana and Nigeria both have piracy rates of 82 per cent while Kenya fares little better at 80 per cent, they said.

 

Much of that software, about 90 per cent, has entered Africa from nations with traditionally weak copyright enforcement, for example the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, China and Indonesia.

 

Need for incentives

 

But African pirates are rapidly entering the market. Botswana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Zambia were added this year to the top 20 list of high piracy states as determined by the Business Software Alliance, an umbrella group representing the industry.

 

The surge in piracy has been exacerbated by the introduction of digital technology and internet file sharing, says Edward Sigei, an attorney with the Kenya copyright board.

 

He told the conference that more had to be done to build  awareness of piracy among consumers and that governments had to boost import controls.

 

"Piracy has become a threat to copyright-based industry as it has wiped out the incentives for creators, which was offered by the copyright protection," he said.

 

"This threatens the whole rationale of copyright system."

 

Sigei stressed that although ultimate responsibility lies with the owner, governments should also take action by strengthening criminal sanctions, taking civil action and stepping up import inspections.

 

"The government needs to create public awareness on detrimental effects of piracy and counterfeits, empower investors in the industry, offer incentives for infrastructure development and enhance enforcement action by increasing the number of prosecutions, conviction and penalties," he said.