Catching copycats is not easy. It involves long investigation to gather evidence for a conviction. But some firms spend a lot of money to do just that, building reputations among copiers as being too difficult to bother with. PIRATING trademarks and patented products is big business. Software designer Microsoft, for instance, claims to have lost up to US$30 million in China. Cartier, the watch and jewellery maker, estimates pirates cost it US$3.5 million a year, plus a further HK$33.5 million it pays to copyright protectors such as Pinkerton. In Hong Kong last year, 33 people were imprisoned in cases involving HK$200 million of counterfeit goods. This is just a tiny part of a worldwide problem, with Southeast Asia as its nexus. Simon Cheetham, vice-president of Pinkerton (Asia), paused for a few moments to think of a product which had not been counterfeited. ''The Space Shuttle Columbia?'' he suggested. His original idea was Concorde, but of course it has been counterfeited - by the Soviet Union. Mr Cheetham was speaking in front of a wall of shelves containing counterfeit or pirate products of every description, some of the haul of goods which Pinkerton has netted on behalf of its corporate clients over the years. According to him, the company works for more than 70 per cent of Fortune 500 companies. Visitors were always surprised by the range of goods being pirated, he said. Most expected to see Louis Vuitton bags and watches ostensibly made by Cartier and Rolex. The pirating of compact discs and tapes is also well known. But few expected to see bags of knock-off sugar, bottles of shampoo and bleach, car parts, sweets and even plastic wall plugs used to receive screws. The logic was each case was similar, Mr Cheetham said. ''Counterfeit products are cheaper, and there is always a reason for that,'' he said. ''Normally it is the materials used, but the processes used can also be cheaper. The counterfeiter has no research and development costs, and doesn't have to pay for advertising.'' In the case of counterfeit sugar, the pirate is selling a sugar that looks the same as the real thing but is less refined. Car parts are a big worry for car and engine manufacturers, which can often make a large percentage of their profits from replacement parts. Mr Cheetham waved a brake pad. ''God knows how this would perform if you actually needed to stop,'' he said. The wall plugs, plastic items costing only a few cents, seem baffling - why would the pirate bother? ''Someone went to the trouble of designing these and they protected their design,'' said Mr Cheetham. China is the front line in the piracy business. Although the country has introduced stringent Western-based laws on patents and copyrights, detecting and preventing piracy is a never ending battle. The pirates ''are clever boys from Hong Kong and Taiwan'', said Mr Cheetham. In the old days, catching them was easier. ''You just looked down any alleyway in Hong Kong and found counterfeiters,'' he said. But now the pirates have moved operations across the border to southern China, as the legitimate operators have done, which is why Pinkerton is expanding into China. The counterfeiters do not manufacture directly, but sub-contract work to factories. The Mr Bigs of piracy are very difficult to catch. ''The actual manufacturers in China have not the faintest idea that what they are doing is wrong, although awareness is growing,'' said Mr Cheetham. ''China has introduced advanced laws but it takes a long time for the message to get around such a big place.'' In addition, law enforcement spending could never keep up with crime, Mr Cheetham said. Although finding the makers of pirated goods was easy, catching them was not, he said. The difficulty Pinkerton often faces is that the pirates' will use Hong Kong only as a base for handling paperwork. It is much easier to enforce copyright laws where products are physically produced. ''The first thing we do is check the industry area - to find out who can make this kind of product. If it involves faking microchips by re-etching different product numbers on obsolete chips, then there are only a few people who can do it,'' he said. If the product is plastic, then Pinkerton can check it for tell-tale mould marks. ''It is like a bullet from a gun,'' said Mr Cheetham. Pinkerton's rogue's gallery of persistent offenders can often narrow the field quickly. ''A very recidivist lot,'' said Mr Cheetham. Then Pinkerton investigators start doing the rounds. ''We call people in the trade. If they think you're a customer, then they'll let you know what you want is available,'' he said. The trick is then to gain access to the factory. Pinkerton agents posing as customers will insist on seeing the goods they want to buy being made. Once that is done the client is informed, and the problems really start. Shutting down the factory is never a simple task. A court order must be obtained and the factory watched until the right moment comes to carry out a search. Naturally, it costs a lot of money. ''Serving an order can take a week and involve 20 people on the raid. The search might not be completed in a single day, so you have to have the premises guarded and come back. It can take a week,'' Mr Cheetham said. But manufacturers can seldom afford to trace the problem all the way back to the source - the kingpins who instigate the business. The pirated manufacturer had to take a commercial decision, Mr Cheetham said. Connecting the crime boss to the factory making the fakes is even more difficult. The bosses have very little to do with production, which makes it virtually impossible to secure a conviction. As a result, Mr Cheetham comes across the same names again and again. ''They rarely get nicked,'' he said ruefully. But that does not mean manufacturers cannot contain the faking problem. With enough persistence, the maker can develop a reputation for being not worth the bother of faking.