Centre for Internet & Society

Varun Baliga and Nehaa Chaudhari discuss the 2015 US 301 Report, focussing on its narrow and convenient understanding of IP rights. A farrago of contradictions, it supports a rightsholder-centric view but not when the right, Geographical Indicator, is not to their liking. Similarly, the emphasis on the rights themselves gives short shrift to critical exceptions and limitations that also enhance and incentivize innovation, the ostensible purpose of IP.

The US Trade Representative ["USTR"] is the office in charge of the United States Special 301 Report ["301 Report"] - an annual report on the state of intellectual property rights in countries around the world. The Executive Summary of the 2015 Report states that it is conducted "pursuant to Section 182 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended by the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 and the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (19 U.S.C. § 2242)". [1] The relevant excerpt of the provision states:

" The Trade Representative shall, by not later than the date by which countries are identified under subsection (a) of this section, transmit to the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Finance of the Senate, a report on actions taken under this section during the 12 months preceding such report, and the reasons for such actions, including a description of progress made in achieving improved intellectual property protection and market access for persons relying on intellectual property rights ."

The 2015 301 Report, much like its predecessors, prioritizes the existence of institutional mechanisms for the protection of intellectual property rights over the purported end goals of those rights, as argued by Shamnad Basheer.[2] The purported link between intellectual property and innovation, a key element of the CIS comment on the National IPR Policy , is not studied by the Report but simply assumed as a truism. In the usual criticism of India's laws, the Report notes that "IPR protection and enforcement challenges continue, and there are serious questions regarding the future of the innovative climate in India", operating on the assumption that IPR is the sole driving force of innovation. Instead, the Report is guided by the 'business climate' in a country as facilitated by its IP laws. To borrow from the EFF's incisive critique of this annual exercise, the 301 Report pressurizes India to criminalize the act of camcording in a cinema hall despite domestic copyright law that prohibits it subject to statutory exceptions.[3] Further, the Report finds India's compliance with the Berne Convention to be insufficient since 'business climate' favours as comprehensive an intellectual property regime as possible directed at the expansion of rights and the narrowing of exceptions critical to education and openness of knowledge.

International law on intellectual property is interpreted instrumentally by the drafters of the report. What this means is that IP is being viewed solely through the prism of national interest. A particularly egregious implication is being witnessed in the shift of preferred fora to discuss IP from bodies like the WIPO to trade-oriented platforms, a theme that is discussed later on in this piece. Further, Italy's notice and takedown regime is praised in the 2015 Report notwithstanding its procedure of obtaining an order of removal not from the courts but the Communications Regulatory Authority, against the Manila Principles of Intermediary Liability, an important albeit non-binding piece of state practice.[4]

Furthermore, the emphasis on the interests of rightsholders themselves coupled with enforcement seldom happens in a comparative context, in the Report. This means that the Report privileges the interests of rightsholders to the exclusion of any interest that the exceptions to copyright, for fair use and education for instance, may hold. The 2015 Report, for instance, notes positive developments in IP law as exclusively including the strengthening of the regulatory framework weighted in favour of rights. It fails to note the ratification of the Accessible Books Consortium or the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur Farida Shaheed on copyright policy,[5] implicitly signalling that the US does not consider these developments favourable. This is problematic at two level.

First, competing interests of free speech, open access to knowledge, education, public health are either downplayed or outright ignored. For example, the Report entirely ignores the work of WIPO on exceptions and limitations, and the Marrakesh Treat among the multilateral and plurilateral initiatives of note. Switzerland, for instance, is censured for the 2010 Swiss Federal Court decision that erred on the side of privacy by prohibiting Logistep from tracking IP addresses of entities accused of file-sharing.[6] Even in the emphasis on rightsholders, the 301 Report reeks of hypocrisy and doublespeak. Gabriel J. Michael notes that the 301 Report criticized the European Union for having too much protection of IP through geographical indicators (GI). So, IP protection appears to be an unreserved good as long as it's the right kind of IP as determined by the United States.

" For example, by any reasonably objective standard, the European Union offers very high levels of IP protection. Yet as recently as 2006, Special 301 listed the European Union on its watch list, citing "concerns" about the EU's geographical indication (GI) regime. Given that GIs are a form of intellectual property, USTR essentially placed the EU on its watch list for offering too much IP-or, if you prefer, the wrong kind of IP. Interestingly, this is a tacit admission by the U.S. that at least some kinds of IP can act as trade barriers ."[7]

Second, the 301 Report operates on the assumption that intellectual property is a right in rem. It does not even attempt to engage with the notion of IP as a public right. This is a direct implication of the methodology of the Report that privileges the simple existence of IP frameworks and enforcement mechanisms over a more substantive examination of the causal nexus between IP and its purported raison d'etre. Therefore, the interpretive approach of the 301 Report towards intellectual property law construes it not as a means to ends but as an end in itself.

What Does This Mean?

Finally, there are two implications of this approach to IP rights. The first is on the Report's words on India this year. Credit is given to India for establishing the High Level Working Group on Intellectual Property ["IPR Working Group"]. The purpose of the Working Group is said to be to "enable India to achieve its important domestic policy goals of increasing investment and stimulating innovation through, not at the expense of, IPR protection and enforcement". The façade of public interest behind which the 301 Report attempted to operate is finally off, one might say. IP exists, it seems, to facilitate not broader goals of public interest but investment and innovation within the myopic interests of 'rightsholders'. Paradoxically, however, the Report does call for more consultation on the First Draft of India's National IPR Policy - a noteworthy development, although inconsistent with the tenor of the rest of the Report. Second, the 301 Report as a reflection of American foreign policy goals is now being understood through the lens of ongoing trade negotiations. This steady shift in the preferable forum for IP negotiations from inclusive and democratic platforms, such as WIPO, towards restrictive and secretive ones, such as the WTO, is driven by regressive notions of IP as reflected in the 301 Report. Signalling a move towards a state-centric approach heralded by the United States, critical non-state actors from civil society find it increasingly difficult to exercise agency in these negotiations. While WIPO provides space for non-state actors such as non-governmental organizations to represent their positions and aid states with research, trade negotiations shunt civil society. The cloak and daggers approach of the United States Government towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty,[8] brought to some light with recent votes in the US Congress, negotiations contrasted with the democratic and open nature of the negotiations surrounding the Marrakech treaty underscores the important difference in approach.[9]

As a result, the civil society finds itself unable to counterbalance the power hierarchies entrenched in international relations as it has done, for example, with the attempted imposition of TRIPS-plus standards through bilateral and multilateral agreements. A state-centric approach makes it easier for larger economies to coerce smaller and dependent countries to draft laws with little regard for limitations and flexibilities that are key for innovation and standard of life in large swathes of Global South - peoples who cannot afford the costs of IP protected-innovation. Further, issues of IP and trade are not pertinent solely to states but are increasingly driven by and relevant to a raft of non-state actors. Any policy that does not actively seek to include these stakeholders in the decision making process is destined to fail. Therefore, on both principled and consequentialist grounds, the Special 301 Report deserves very little attention from the international community.

[1] Full text of the provision available at https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/19/2242.

[2] http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/these-rancid-rankings/99/

[3] https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2015/04/special-301-balance-not-found

[6] http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2010/09/switzerland-gathering-ip-addresses-from-bittorrent-sites-illegal/

[7] https://topromotetheprogress.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/special-301-is-it-effective/ ;


[8] http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/05/tpp-elizabeth-warren-labor-118068.html#.VWvcMk-qqko ; http://www.ip-watch.org/2015/04/23/divide-and-conquer-the-new-us-strategy-to-disentangle-the-tpp-negotiations/

[9] http://www.ip-watch.org/2013/12/19/wipo-delegates-hear-concerns-of-ngos-on-exceptions-for-libraries/

The views and opinions expressed on this page are those of their individual authors. Unless the opposite is explicitly stated, or unless the opposite may be reasonably inferred, CIS does not subscribe to these views and opinions which belong to their individual authors. CIS does not accept any responsibility, legal or otherwise, for the views and opinions of these individual authors. For an official statement from CIS on a particular issue, please contact us directly.