updated 4/9/2007 8:47:24 PM ET 2007-04-10T00:47:24

The U.S. movie and music industries have long sought the kind of trade action against China announced by the Bush administration Monday, but it could still take years for Hollywood and the recording industry to see a financial benefit.

The legal dispute U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab is initiating at the World Trade Organization can take 12 to 18 months to be resolved under WTO rules, trade experts said. Even if the United States wins the two cases it plans to file Tuesday, China could delay for several more years any steps it is required to take to comply with the WTO’s rulings.

“The U.S. and China have butted heads over intellectual property rights for two decades and could easily do so for two decades more,” said Greg Mastel, a former congressional trade policy adviser.

Schwab said Monday that the U.S. will file one case that focuses on shortcomings in China’s enforcement of its copyright laws and another on China’s restrictions on the import and sale of legitimate movies, books and other copyrighted goods.

The stakes for U.S. companies are high. The Motion Picture Association of America, whose members include Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. Entertainment and News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox, says U.S. copyright industries lost about $2.3 billion in revenue to Chinese piracy in 2005.

The concerns extend to U.S. manufacturers, who say everything from auto parts to industrial instrument gauges are illegally copied by Chinese companies and exported to world markets, robbing U.S. companies of market share.

Frank Vargo, vice president for international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, acknowledged that the WTO disputes won’t yield immediate results.

“It could be awhile,” he said. “But the point is, if you don’t start now, it will always be awhile.”

Some trade experts said China could take quick steps to address the concerns raised in the U.S. complaints, which could forestall the need for extensive litigation.

“This one could be settled in a way both parties like,” said Gary Horlick, a trade attorney at WilmerHale, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm.

Neil Turkewitz, executive vice president for international issues at the Recording Industry Association of America, said he is optimistic that if China quickly increases the criminal prosecution of copyright violators, the industry could benefit in a matter of months and the U.S. might hold off from further pressing its claims at the WTO.

China “could very quickly take an 85 percent to 90 percent piracy rate and reduce it to 50 percent within months,” he said in an interview. The RIAA’s membership includes Sony BMG Music Entertainment, which is half-owned by Sony Corp.

China has already taken some steps, announcing last week that it would reduce the number of pirated discs that a violator needs to possess to be subject to criminal sanction.

But if China doesn’t make further concessions, “then we’re in it for the long haul,” Turkewitz said.

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