A powerful trade agreement, called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Act (ACTA) is being fast-tracked by a small elite group of developed countries, including the US, Japan, Switzerland and the European Commission, outside of existing multi-lateral international channels, behind closed doors and with minimal public disclosure. While the stated objective of reducing piracy and counterfeiting are laudable goals, critics claim that this legislation is heavy-handed, goes too far, ignores the interests of developing countries and hands out a grab bag of gifts to Health Care, Big Pharma and the Motion Picture industry, who just happen to be major donors to the campaigns of every member of the US Congressional Caucus on Intellectual Property and Piracy Prevention (Bono R-CA, Goodlatte R-VA, Berman D-CA, Schiff D-CA, Blacburn R-TN). These folks, along with US Ambassador Susan C. Schwab, are the driving force behind this legislation.
The stated goal of this legislation is create a new standard of intellectual property enforcement, which goes beyond the principles agreed in the so-called TRIPs Agreement. According to a leaked document, the legislation is looking for ways to “encourage” Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to identify and remove copyright infringing material. Groups such as the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, who support this legislation have called for mandatory network-level filtering and for ISPs terminate citizens’ Internet connection on repeat allegation of copyright infringement. The legislation also contains a “Pirate Bay killer” clause designed to criminalize the non-profit facilitation of unauthorized information exchange on the internet. This clause would clamp down on primary source journalism sites such as Wikileaks and otherwise disrupt the free flow of information.
The legislation also provides for increased border search powers, so that not only can border agents search your luggage for pirated DVDs or knock-off watches, they could potentially even search your iPod or laptop for material that infringes copyright laws, like for example, ripped CDs.
David Fewer, staff counsel at the University of Ottawa’s Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic called the legislation, what intellectual property laws would look like “if Hollywood could order them for Christmas.”
But intellectual property (IP) laws are not only about copyrights, they also include patents, which is where the big pharmaceuticals come into this story. As the result of pressure from pharmaceutical companies ACTA would treat many generic drugs the same as counterfeit drugs, making cheap competition for name-brands difficult to find and in some cases, illegal. The result will be even higher prices for prescription drugs, even as health care costs are crippling our economy. Where I live, in Upstate NY, a number of people drive up into Canada to buy medicines at lower prices. Under this proposed law, these folks could be subject to search and seizure of these drugs at the border, as if they were smuggling narcotics. The law will also open the door to litigation which could threaten the existence of the generic drug industry. Critics point out that ACTA does not adequately address health and safety concerns, focusing instead on protecting the revenue streams of drug-makers.
For the past fifteen years, Intellectual Property (IP) laws have been quietly overhauled at the urging of major corporations who stand most to benefit from these changes. As it stands today, the entrepreneurial playing field is no longer level for new inventors trying to protect their ideas from the predations of big companies with deep pockets, or for artists trying to create new material without fear of retribution from copyright holders protecting even the tiniest fragments of their work as the “fair use” provisions in the law erode away. Patents have become weaker, except for drug patents and copyright made stronger because this is what the entrenched interests want. They want to maximize profits from their existing IP while shutting out newcomers. And perhaps most egregious of all, they have been granted the right to own a patent on living organisms such as genetically modified seeds, which has now made it illegal in some cases for farmers to save their own seeds, something they have done since the very first farms.
Not only do these changes make life more difficult for those already suffering, but they also threaten the very spirit of innovation that once made this country great. To me, the Triple Bottom Line is all about balancing the needs of people, profit and planet. This one seems a little out of balance to me. Avaaz.org is collecting signatures of people who think this legislation should be stopped.
RP Siegel is an author and inventor who has written extensively on issues involving IP and is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails.
Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.