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American inventors rely on patent laws to protect their creations. Authors and artists have U.S. copyright laws to protect their work from cheap, illegal copies. But surprisingly, U.S. motor vehicle manufacturers have no comparable legal protection for their huge investments of time and money spent designing cars and trucks.

This gaping hole in U.S. design protection laws has been exploited in recent years by offshore firms in Taiwan, Mexico and the Philippines. These companies copy the distinctive shapes that make up the overall design of a motor vehicle, including fenders, hoods, doors and other sheet metal "crash parts." After a vehicle had been in an accident, these copied or imitation parts are then substituted for the quality replacement crash parts made by the original vehicle equipment manufacturers (OEMs) when the vehicle is being repaired.Design piracy by offshore firms began when vehicle manufacturers started to stabilize their car and truck designs for several years to keep prices down, rather than change the looks of their vehicles every model year. As a result, the most popular cars and trucks can be easily identified as profitable targets for copying.

These imitation parts sometimes cost less than OEM parts for a number of reasons. The offshore firms, by copying OEM designs, do not have to invest the millions of dollars and the years of development time it takes to successfully design new cars and trucks. They can "cherry pick" the highest volume parts, whereas vehicle manufacturers must produce and stock the full range of replacement parts for their cars and trucks, whether or not they are big sellers.

In addition, there are quality problems with many of these imitation parts that may lower the value of a vehicle after it has been repaired. Fit and finish are frequent problems because the copied parts often are made with less than state-of-the-art equipment and are not subject to the rigorous quality checks that OEM parts must pass.

Many of these offshore imitation parts are also prone to early rusting because they are not made of galvanized steel. By contrast, virtually all the replacement sheet metal parts of domestic cars and trucks are made with high-quality galvanized steel, using the same dies as the original parts, and using American labor.

Vehicle manufacturers seek to halt the theft of their intellectual property - their car and truck exterior designs - by passage of the Design Innovation and Technology Act, H.R. 1790, sponsored by Reps. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Carlos Moorhead, R-Calif.

Passage of this bill would bridge the gap between the mechanical nature of patent laws and the artistic nature of copyright laws by protecting the designs of useful articles that are attractive or distinctive in appearance.

By outlawing blatant copying, H.R. 1790 would protect the investments of U.S. car and truck buyers by ensuring that their vehicles are repaired with quality parts. It also would sustain U.S. employment and justify the investment of vehicle manufacturers in high quality, attractively designed cars and trucks.

Protecting the designs of cars, household appliances, cameras and other products is not a new or radical idea. In fact, the United States is one of the few industrialized nations in the world that does not have a strong and effective design protection law. With design piracy hurting the U.S. economy more than ever, it is time for Congress to pass the Design Innovation and Technology Act.

(Thomas H. Hanna is president of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association.)