Software manufacturers are calling on European governments to reform and strengthen their copyright laws to cut down on piracy.

The software industry loses $15.2 billion each year due to piracy. Theft in Europe alone accounts for 39 percent, or $6 billion of this total, said the Business Software Alliance in Washington. The group estimates that more than half of software programs used in Western Europe are illegal copies.The problem is global. Software piracy in Asia accounts for 29 percent, or $4.3 billion in total theft.

"Software piracy is now a major social and economic problem," said Robert Holleyman, BSA's president. "It has already cost Europe tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenues."

These high piracy rates indicate that deterrents are inadequate in Europe. In response, the European Union's Software Directive needs to be reinforced with national legislation from member nations based on the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) TRIPs Agreement, he said.

TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property) language in GATT harmonizes

copyright protection for intellectual property rights in EU member states.

BSA is proposing stronger penalties for illegal software copying; a more visible effort from public agencies enforcing copyright laws; speedier court procedures in civil and criminal cases and higher fines and damages in civil cases imposed on violators. The group also is asking for a widespread court- ordered surprise procedure needed to seize and capture illegal software before evidence is erased by offenders.

"Right now, there are many places where we get ripped off because there are no teeth in the laws," said Neil Goldman, deputy general counsel at Lotus Corp., the Cambridge, Mass., software maker.

In some countries, raids are not permissible and penalties are light, he said. TRIPs will put in place protections for software makers so that they can exercise their legal rights, he said.

Sometimes it's not worth your while to to pursue a case depending upon the jurisdiction, said David Bradford, senior vice president and general counsel for Novell Inc., a software maker in Provo, Utah. Novell has its own investigators in Paris, London and is putting one in Germany.

"We certainly would support any government efforts to strengthen copyright legislation around the world," said Christine Santucci, a spokeswoman for Microsoft Corp., the Redmond, Wash., software giant.

If illegal software copying in Europe last year had been reduced from 60 percent to the U.S. level of 35 percent, more than 56,000 new jobs would have been created and an extra $1.4 billion generated in tax revenue, according to a just-released report from the BSA.

By 2000, the same drop in piracy would have created 87,000 jobs and brought in an extra $2.3 billion for European tax coffers, said the report, entitled ''Contribution of the Packaged Business Software" and produced by Price Waterhouse.

Overall, if piracy levels fell to 35 percent in Europe, by 2000 the packaged business software industry industry would support more than 350,000 European jobs and contribute $9.2 billion to the Continent's tax revenue.

Packaged business software is the fastest growing segment of a market growing at 13 percent annually and that will garner revenue of $43.7 billion by 1997, said Diane Smiroldo, a BSA spokeswoman. This industry contributed some $4.4 billion to western European government revenue in 1994 and supported 170,000 jobs.

But unless piracy can be curbed, the industry faces an increasing economic threat.