By Kim Weatherall
Next week in Wellington, negotiators from a select group of like-minded countries – US, the European Union, Japan, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Australia, South Korea, Morocco and Singapore – will meet in what will be the eighth round of negotiations aimed at producing an ‘Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement’ (ACTA). These negotiations are both troubling, and troubled – and I’d like, in this post, to explain why.
According to all the official documentation, the goals of the proposed ACTA are to establish an international framework for efforts to more effectively combat the proliferation of counterfeiting and piracy in three ways: by enhancing cooperation between the various agencies in the participating countries; by establishing ‘a set of enforcement best practices that are used by authorities’ (whatever that means) and by setting out a legal framework of enforcement measures. The underlying belief seems to be that existing international treaty provisions on IP enforcement are relatively general and weak. And while it might seem a bit strange to negotiate a treaty on combating counterfeiting without including the major source countries for counterfeit products, there are two good reasons for doing so. First, counterfeit-receiving countries can do quite a lot without cooperation: they can seize goods at the border, share intelligence, apply penalties and remedies to internal acts, and so on. Second, an ACTA could establish a ‘benchmark’ with other countries joining at a later point.
While ACTA is supposed to be about counterfeiting and piracy, and not about private, non-commercial activities of individuals or raising general IP standards, there has long been concern on the part of civil society groups that it would end up being much more extensive than that, and might make already strong IP laws even stronger, at the expense of individuals, consumers, and civil liberties generally.
There has been no official release of any proposed text for the ACTA: the negotiations, while not secret, are in substance being treated as confidential. But there have been leaks of various proposals, from which it is possible to get a picture of what is being proposed.
The picture that emerges from the various leaked documents (which can all be accessed at American University’s IP Enforcement website) is of a proposed Agreement that is wide-ranging and arguably over-inclusive, and which, in particular, extends its reach well beyond what most people would think of as ‘counterfeiting and piracy’. There are provisions on damages and how they should be assessed; the powers courts should have to issue injunctions or make orders for the collection of evidence, the process for customs to seize, retain, and perhaps destroy infringing goods and implements; and extensive provisions on IP in a digital context: provisions on online service provider liability and ‘safe harbours’; for prohibiting circumvention of technical measures, and institutional provisions to set up an ‘ACTA Oversight Council’ to supervise ACTA implementation, facilitate amendments, and establish working groups and generally monitor the application of the treaty provisions.
For Australia, many of the provisions that we see in the leaked texts are not particularly new: quite a few mirror more or less closely what we have already agreed to and implemented as a result of the Free Trade Agreement with the US back in 2004. So the anti-circumvention provisions (requiring countries to ban people from ‘circumventing’ technical measures used to protect copyright works) are nothing particularly new or exciting for us – in fact, they are positively generous and flexible compared to what we are already committed to.
However, a number of the proposals are troubling, if only because they would, if included in a final agreement, require changes to our law or at least muddy our legal waters:
- A proposal to introduce statutory damages: if compulsory, this could create a risk of oppressive damages awards and create a tool to hold infringers in terrorem by threatening large payouts if they do not settle early;
- A proposal to extend criminal liability to ‘ordinary’ trade mark infringement (in Australian law terms, in cases where there is deceptive similarity between the registered and the alleged infringing mark) – at the moment, we have criminal provisions for counterfeit trade mark use. This could create new uncertainties for legitimate businesses;
- A right to obtain information from infringers about others involved in the infringement that looks like it might encourage fishing expeditions;
- A provisional power to seize evidence – not, on the face of it, subject to the careful protections built in to the already rather stringent Anton Piller (search orders) process;
- A proposal to extend border seizures to patent infringements – which I imagine would be controversial; and
- A new criminal provision: to make ‘camcording in cinemas’ a criminal act
There’s more too. Most concerning are a few bits of language that can only be described as a hotch potch. One is a proposal to apply the Berne Convention ‘three step test’ – usually used to limit the exceptions to copyright a country can introduce – but maybe used here to limit the exceptions to damages or secondary liability. Oh, and a very ham-fisted attempt to ‘define’ the extent of the law of secondary liability (in Australian terms, authorisation liability) (which no doubt, just like the attempt to ‘codify’ authorisation law in the Digital Agenda Act, would cause another decade of uncertainty for Australian law).
Some of the ‘house of horrors’ fears about the ACTA are not borne out by the leaked texts. It seems like the governments don’t want to have customs start searching our iPods at the border, nor are they determined to seize them on the streets (good thing too). And the anti-circumvention provisions, as I mentioned, are positively gentle compared to what we’ve seen in other treaties. But there’s enough niggling little details, and little shifts, and troubling provisions, in there to make you wonder whether the whole thing is just a bad idea.
Something else, however, emerges from the various leaked texts which is interesting to observe: namely, the differences that exist as between the various negotiating parties. If the various comments on the text leaked in January are in any way accurate, Japan appears to be in fundamental disagreement in the digital area: they seem to want to be stricter on ISPs (requiring them to act on infringement unless it is technically impossible) but easier on people who want to circumvent technological protection measures (they don’t ban, and don’t want to ban, circumvention of access controls). Europe and the US seem to be fairly diametrically opposed on the role of damages: in the US, statutory damages are clearly punitive in nature; the EU does not see ‘punishment’ as a role of damages in IP. And no one, it seems, can agree on anti-camcording laws or what they should look like. In many, many cases, provisions that one country or group want to make mandatory, others want to be an optional extra (usually, because it doesn’t fit their law: like Australia with statutory damages). That goes for most of the provisions that I’ve outlined up there. For pretty much all of them, there’s someone who wants to strike it out or make it optional.
So we end up in this rather strange position. If all those provisions go in, we have something to be worried about and we’ve got a load of provisions that are going to create a chilling effect on individuals and legitimate businesses. Nasty stuff. But if all the qualifications go in, and ‘shall’ gets replaced en masse with ‘may’ – then we end up with … not much?
And this, in itself, raises a question. If these countries can’t agree; if there is this much contention, two and a half years or so since negotiations started – what, exactly, are we doing here? And if we smooth over all the disagreements, and ‘vague-up’ the language sufficiently that everyone can agree… will we have achieved anything concrete at all? I’m not so sure. I can’t help but feel we’re heading towards a whole lotta optional extras and not a lot of substance.
Now, the obvious response to this is – well, so what? That’s good, right? No nasty stuff that makes Australia change its laws (again)? So what if the negotiators get together and, in the end, have 40 pages or so of treaty with 3 provisions of compulsory simple stuff and 35 pages of optional extras?
Well, personally, I think there is a so what here. Because you know what that means? A whole lot of complication, a lot of hard to understand jargon, a lot of ill-will (because this stuff is controversial and it’s generating a lot of bad press for IP law generally) – and IP owners who don’t make a single dollar more, meaning we don’t get a single extra book, or movie, or innovative new product out of this treaty. And in the end, isn’t that what this is all meant to be about? Encouraging creativity and innovation?
And then there’s the secondary effect. That you set up a standard – ok, it’s optional, but it’s there – and when the trainers come to the developing countries – or, indeed, developed countries the next time someone gets their bee in a bonnet about something – to write their shiny new IP laws, this treaty is held up as the shining example of a perfect IP enforcement system. And the people are told – look, you want all the optional extras, right? They’re features, right? And more features are good???
I think, if I were a negotiator, I would be taking a long hard look at what is in the treaty, and I would be asking: is this really worth it? Is it worth the criticism and the ill-will and the conspiracy theories, and is it going to make creators any richer. Cause if not? I’d be spending the Wellington hotel bills on better arts grants and fund a few science projects.
ACTA. I’m not sure if it’s going to have a finale. And if it does, I’m not sure whether it’s going to be the 1812, or a fade-out. Watch this space.