New laws designed to clamp down on imitation goods have been welcomed by Midland lawyers.

Although the UK has a good track record tackling intellectual property theft, other European countries often take a more relaxed view of the infringement of trade marks, designs, copyright and patents. As a result, although the laws across Europe can be similar, their enforcement differs greatly.

Spain, Italy and Greece are among the worst offenders, with illegal copies being openly sold on the streets.

As a consequence, counterfeiting of music CDs, children's toys and games, designer goods, car parts and even medicines has become a multi million pound business.

According to Des Burley, an associate and intellectual property expert at the Birmingham office of Mills & Reeve, some European countries provide an unwitting haven for bootleggers.

He said: "Counterfeiting and the sale of imitation goods can have a devastating effect on many industries, as well as the European economy.

"At their worst, rip-offs can even cost lives, with pirated medicines among the growing army of copy-cat products. Clearly, what is required is some cross-border offensive to drive out illegal copying."

To harmonise the laws across Europe, the European Commission has introduced an Intellectual Property Crime Directive. The directive requires member states to introduce measures, procedures and remedies necessary to ensure the enforcement of intellectual property rights, by tomorrow.

Mr Burley said: "The Commission has brought counterfeiting and piracy to the top of its agenda. Those member states with a poor track record of protection will need to get their house in order."

The UK enforcement agencies have already increased the level of intelligence sharing between them, and have made a conscious effort to improve training provided to those enforcing intellectual property law. There are also proposals to increase the amount of cross-border cooperation between national enforcement agencies.

In the UK the effect will be to add patents to the list of intellectual property rights for which an infringer is subject to criminal penalties - already copyright and trade mark infringers can find themselves with a prison sentence of up to ten years, or a substantial fine. Patent infringers, it seems, could soon be joining the criminal fraternity.

But the directive has not been welcomed by all. The criminalisation of "attempting, aiding or abetting and inciting" the infringement of patents which are later proved invalid has been particularly criticised.