Centre for Internet & Society

America’s newest trade agreement is not going to kill only iPods. The article appeared in the Tehelka Magazine Vol 7, Issue 45, Dated November 13, 2010

EARLIER LAST week, a group of renowned academics in the United States wrote a letter to President Obama criticising his administration for the secrecy with which a new trade agreement, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), was being negotiated. They argued that the agreement that has immense public interest implications, including freedom of speech and expression, privacy, access to medicines and access to technology, has been conducted only with the interests of large corporations in mind. The first official release of the draft text of this treaty took place only in April 2010, and since then there has not been a single public meeting to invite comments on the text. So what is the deal on ACTA, also known in some circles as the ‘iPod killer’ agreement, and why should we in India be concerned about it? To get a sense of the importance of ACTA, it would be useful to understand briefly the history of negotiations on multilateral agreements on intellectual property.

The establishment of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the successful conclusion of the negotiations of the TRIPS agreement set a minimum standard for intellectual property laws across the world. In the absence of an international standard, countries have far more flexibility in creating national laws that may be more suited to the development or technological needs of their society, and this is especially for developing countries hoping to create indigenous technological capabilities.

The best example of this perhaps is the rise of the generic pharmaceutical industry in India. Till the Patent Amendment in 2005, India did not recognise the grant of a product patent for drugs, and only allowed a process patent. This enabled pharmaceutical companies in India to import expensive drugs, reverse engineer them and create cheaper alternatives. And it is through this that India became a country that not only produced affordable medicines, but also exported them to many other countries, particularly in Africa.

After India became a member of the WTO and a signatory to the TRIPS agreement, it was obliged to change its patent laws to recognise product patents on drugs. It is clear then that the establishment of a multilateral venue for the creation of common norms can often act against the interests of developing countries that have much less of a bargaining power. This was particularly true in the early days of the WTO.

However, as countries like India, China and Brazil grew in strength and others also started getting a better sense of how developing countries could play the multilateral game, the very mode that was supposed to guarantee the protection of the interests of the global north became the basis through which other countries started articulating their own concerns. In 2004 for instance, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) adopted a proposal for the establishment of a Development Agenda. This declaration proposed by Brazil and Argentina and supported by many countries of the southern hemisphere sought to bring development concerns into the agenda of the WIPO, thereby limiting the absolute rights of owners of intellectual property and argued for a more equitable global IP regime.

Two weeks after WIPO’s September 2007 adoption of the Development Agenda, the US, European and Japanese officials announced that they would seek to negotiate a new agreement in order to “set a new, higher benchmark for enforcement that countries can join on a voluntary basis”. Thus began the negotiations around the Anti-Counterfeiting and Trade Agreement.

ACTA is a new and separate international agreement dedicated to the enforcement of intellectual property. While some alleged that it was an effort to address existing limitations in the TRIPS agreement, it actually creates a wide range of policing powers. The two biggest concerns about ACTA include the creation of a new global IP enforcement regime by granting powers to customs officials to act as watchdogs for IP infringement. This essentially means that customs officials have the right to inspect any electronic device, including computers, hard drives and music devices, for copyright infringing materials. A scary proposition for anyone who travels. While apparently there are discussions over whether personal use items will be exempt, the fact that the agreement is being negotiated in such secrecy means that we don’t really know what the implications actually are. The second area of concern is the fact that ACTA dramatically intervenes in the creation of Internet policy — notably in regard to the liability of ISPS, search engines and other third parties to charges of ‘contributory’ infringement.

A pirated DVD is very different from a spurious drug, which is very different from a fake Gucci bag, and yet ACTA treats them all alike

THE PRIMARY supporters of ACTA include the US, the European Union, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, South Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Jordan, Morocco, Singapore and the UAE. Notably absent are many of the industrialised middleincome countries that have been the principal targets of the US and European enforcement concern in the past decade: Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa and China.

ACTA introduces a confusing language that deliberately attempts to bring things together that are not related. A pirated DVD is very different from a spurious drug, which is very different from a fake Gucci bag, and yet ACTA brings them all under the ambit of counterfeit goods. The negotiations of ACTA highlight the fact that the US and some countries in Europe have realised that multilateral venues like the WTO and WIPO are no longer the happy hunting grounds of hegemonic aspirations, and that it makes more sense now to have an agreement that is initiated by powerful countries who then use a bilateral mode of coercion to have countries sign on and then make it a multilateral agreement.

The classic mode of coercion, followed for instance by the US, has been the annual United States Trade Representative (USTR) reports that rank countries on the basis of their IP enforcement. Based on their assessment, they place countries on different watch lists, and these are backed by trade sanctions against a country. India and China have consistently made it to the priority watch list for the past 10 years, and using a carrotand- stick approach, the USTR makes recommendations for changes in national laws. It seems the failure to create norms at multilateral forums necessitated the creation of forums like ACTA, which when combined with the USTR, are used to exert pressure that can convert countries resistant to a dominant IP system into accepting higher norms on a voluntary basis.

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