THE United States Trade Representative is going to take a long hard look at Hong Kong in September for signs of improvement in intellectual property rights (IPR) protection. If Charlene Barshefsky does not like what she sees, she may decide that sanctions are the only other alternative. Ms Barshefsky on Friday decided to keep the SAR on its watch list of piracy black spots, citing rising levels of pirated goods distribution and a rapid increase in the production of pirated optical media. In anticipation of the announcement, the Hong Kong Government unveiled proposals to confiscate assets from, and brand as criminals, those discovered to be involved in copyright piracy. Secretary for Trade and Industry Brian Chau Tak-hay said the problem was serious and could damage the overall interests of the SAR's international reputation. But the initiative may have come too late, announced as it was just hours before Ms Barshefsky warned of the September review. Whether or not it is the case, the local government has been made to look as if it only budges when prodded. Recent arrests of senior customs officials involved in such illegal practices may serve to highlight the work the government appears to be doing to combat IPR abuse. But what really irks Ms Barshefsky is the way pirated products are sold so openly in big shopping centres openly advertising CD-ROMs with '3 for $100' signs above the shelves. What concerns the manufacturers of original software, CD-ROMs as well as the makers of brand name clothes and accessories is that there seems to be a culture in Hong Kong that accepts piracy and does not see any wrongdoing in buying fake products. Piracy is prevalent in Hong Kong's main shopping streets, markets and shopping centres. Visitors are offered 'copy watches' in Nathan Road and fake Playboy T-shirts and Gucci handbags in the night markets around the corner. Piracy cannot be more blatant than this. The software industry is the only industry grouping to have formed a taskforce to protect its own interests in Hong Kong and the region. The Business Software Alliance has already had a degree of success by launching a number of campaigns aimed at bringing software cheats to justice. The alliance has encouraged white-collar workers to come forward and spill the beans on their bosses who are using illegal software and has succeeded in getting the culprits fined. Nevertheless, there has been no indication that this action has discouraged others. If Ms Barshefsky does not find visible signs of improvement by September, Hong Kong will be placed on a 'Special Watch' list. With this status comes the threat of sanctions and a problematic trading relationship with one of the SAR's biggest trading partners. While it must be recognised that the situation is very serious, it must also be noted that the problem is not unique to Hong Kong. Ms Barshefsky also criticised Greece, where she said more than 150 television stations were guilty of airing US-owned motion pictures and television programming without authorisation.