China has strengthened its anti-piracy laws to make iteasier to prosecute copyright violations and to allow tougher sentences to behanded out to offenders.

Thenew rules cover many kinds of copyright and patent violations but are specificabout film and other software. Starting from Dec 22, anyone found copying anddistributing more than 5,000 pirated copies of films, television programming,music, literature or computer software will be fined and sentenced to betweenthree and seven years in prison.

Forthe first time, online piracy will be regarded as a copyright infringement andincluded in criminal law.

China's top courts - the Supreme People's Court and theSupreme People's Procuratorate - also announced that organisations earning morethan $3,600 (RMB30,000) from selling counterfeit goods or infringing oncopyrights will be eligible for criminal penalties. Previously, only offendersearning more than $12,000 were subject to fines and imprisonment.

"We should not only sentence such offenders in a determinedmanner, but also make it economically impossible for the criminals convictedand sentenced to commit the crime again," said Supreme People's Court vicepresident Cao Jianming.

The new rules also stipulate that anyone who assists piracyoperations will be regarded as complicit in the crime. This includes import andexport agents as well as anyone offering loans, funds or licences toorganisations involved in piracy.

"In many places the infringements have taken on thecharacteristics of a well-organised operation or a family-run operation withconsiderable scale," said Cao.

The announcement follows further complaints from the US andEurope in recent months about the huge losses they are caused by piracy inChina.

The Chinese government has made some attempts to stem theproblem - by cracking down on illegal manufacturing plants and markets sellingpirated goods - but overseas officials and businesses have complained that it'sdifficult to prosecute offenders and even successful cases only result in modestfines.

The inclusion of online piracy in China's criminal law istimely as the country has the second highest number of broadband connections inthe world - around 16 million - compared to about 28 million in the US.Downloading and peer-to-peer filesharing of movies is exploding as Chineseconsumers have turned to the internet for information and entertainment thatthey can't access in the country's strictly regulated media environment.