It looks rather embarrassing, doesn't it? The Government enacted an ordinance which came into force on April 1, but before the month was out, it published a bill seeking to suspend some provisions of the ordinance.

The ordinance in question is the much-maligned Intellectual Property (Miscellaneous Amendments) Ordinance. Although you may not be overly familiar with its title, you would have had to have been on a fairly long holiday not to have heard of its effects.

For four months prior to the introduction of the ordinance, the Government conducted a concerted publicity campaign to educate businesses on the implications.

As reported in this column on March 6, the crux of the ordinance is to make it a criminal offence to possess unlicensed software (including unauthorised copies of licensed software) "in the course of, or in connection with, any trade or business".

This was only a slight amendment to the previous legislation under which it was an offence to possess software "for the purpose of trade or business".

The net difference between the two sets of wording is that, under the new legislation, it is made clear that the possession by a company of counterfeit software will give rise to an offence, regardless of whether it is actually trading in the software.

Despite the extended publicity campaign conducted by the Government, the introduction of the ordinance heralded an outcry from small and medium-sized businesses which claimed they were unable to comply with its provisions.

An upsurge in sales of legitimate software shortly before the introduction of the ordinance meant that, for a short time, there were not sufficient stocks to go round.

On top of this, businesses pointed out that the ordinance also criminalised the possession of other copyright works, such as books, magazines and information downloaded from the Internet.

Hence the introduction of another catchily named piece of, legislation, the Copyright (Suspension of Amendments) Bill.

The main effect of this legislation is to suspend the effect of the ordinance in respect of all copyright works except computer programs, televisions dramas, movies and sound recordings of movies.

So, let us be clear, it is still an offence for businesses to possess pirated software or additional copies of software beyond the scope of their licence.

If you are running pirated software or if you are using too many copies of licensed software, you should get your house in order as soon as possible.

According to a survey published by the BSA earlier this month, 57 per cent of business software used in Hong Kong last year was pirated. Accordingly, it looks like there is a fair amount of work to be done by a lot of businesses if they are going to avoid an offence under the new ordinance.

It also should not be overlooked that the provisions of the new bill will not suddenly legalise the infringement of other copyright works.

For example, it will remain illegal to photocopy articles from magazines or newspapers, and you can be sued by the copyright owner if you do so without first obtaining permission.

Remember also that the bill has not come into force yet and when it does, it will only suspend temporarily the provisions of the ordinance (section 3 of the bill provides that the suspensions will last only until July 31 next year).

First published in South China Morning Post in May 2001.