MOVING DATA - HENRY A. SAMUEL SOFTWARE INDUSTRY CLAMORS FOR PROTECTION THAT NAFTA WOULD YIELD

MOVING DATA - HENRY A. SAMUEL SOFTWARE INDUSTRY CLAMORS FOR PROTECTION THAT NAFTA WOULD YIELD

Bill Gates - one of the richest humans on the planet - and most of the transportation industry love it. Political gadfly Ross Perot and most of organized labor hate it. The "it," of course, is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the computer software industry unanimously supports.

In an article on the op-ed page of the Washington Post last month, Mr. Gates, chief executive of the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant Microsoft Corp., wrote an impassioned plea for the passage of the Nafta, calling it ''vitally important to the software industry and the country."In fact, some of the Nafta's most ardent boosters are software publishers - with good reason.

According to the Business Software Alliance (BSA), a software piracy watchdog group in Washington, D.C., fully 85 percent of the software currently being used in Mexico has been pirated. The group estimates that dollar losses to U.S. software publishers from Mexican software piracy amount to more than $206 million annually. In fact, the level of software piracy in Mexico is exceeded only by that of Italy, Japan, Thailand and Taiwan.

But Mexico's astronomical software piracy rate should not cause the Canadians - the third leg of the Nafta tripod - to become too self-righteous. About 44 percent of all software used in Canada is pirated, making it the second-lowest rate in the world next to the United States. Despite this, Canada's total for illegally obtained software is still $209 million annually.

The BSA estimates that software piracy worldwide is costing the industry approximately $12 billion a year.

The software industry's estimate of losses is based on the assumption that a pirated software program represents the loss of a sale or licensing fee paid for that product. Skeptics contend that many users of pirated software would forgo the use of the product rather than pay the legitimate market price.

STRONGEST INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY PROTECTION

But whatever the actual damage to the software industry from pirating, the Nafta contains the strongest intellectual property protection provisions ever written into a multilateral agreement, surpassing those in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Under the Nafta, computer software is defined as a "literary work" and, thus, is entitled to the highest level of protection.

According to Robery Holleyman, president of the BSA, the Nafta is a critical element in U.S. trade policy attempts at enforcing strong protection for software among U.S. trading partners.

"Nafta is key in negotiations with Latin American countries where it serves as the model for intellectual property protection. Passage of this critical agreement would be an important building block in the creation of a secure and competitive marketplace with Mexico and Canada and would do much to ensure the continued growth of the software industry," Mr. Holleyman said.

His concerns are more than just academic since the U.S. software industry has become one of the bright spots in an otherwise lackluster economy. It is, in fact, the fastest-growing major industry in the United States, rising 269 percent between 1982 and 1992 in contrast to just 30 percent for the rest of the economy.

Today, software made in the United States comprises 75 percent of the global prepackaged software market and accounts for $19.7 billion in foreign sales, making it one of the top half-dozen U.S. export industries. Overseas shipments of U.S. software are exceeded only by aerospace, chemicals, vehicles and parts, and computers.

"Nafta presents us with an opportunity to protect our intellectual property rights and promote U.S. exports. It is an opportunity we should not miss," Mr. Gates wrote.

The next few days will determine whether Congress is listening to Mr. Gates or to Mr. Perot.