Australia hosts secret trade agreement negotiations this week in Melbourne

This Thursday, behind closed doors in Melbourne, representatives from nine countries including Australia will take up discussions once again on an ambitious, comprehensive trade agreement for the Asia-Pacific region. Negotiators from Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Vietnam, Malaysia, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Peru and Singapore will pore over draft treaty text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, an agreement to cover all aspects of commercial relations between the countries, from competition and customs to e-commerce, rules of origin and labor, from textiles and apparel to telecommunications and intellectual property.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) is being touted as a 21st century model for regional trade integration.The intellectual property chapter for the TPP will lay out lengthy, highly detailed, coverage of all aspects of IP enforcement and protection  between the nine countries. It will cover the terms of access to and use of copyright works. It will prescribe limited circumstances in which consumers are permitted to circumvent digital locks to access copyright work. It will also consider the scope of criminal penalties and statutory damages for acts of copyright infringement.

Because all of the negotiating texts are secret, it’s hard to say exactly how the IP provisions of the TPP are being drafted, and what the end agreement will look like. There has been one leaked draft of the IP chapter since negotiations began and if legitimate, indicates that there’s a lot to be anxious about.

In February 2011 a draft US proposal for the IP chapter of the TPP was leaked to the public. Among other things, the US chapter proposes to extend the copyright term for film and sound recordings by another 25 years (to life of the author + 95 years), severely constrains parallel importation, and expands criminal liability into private, non-commercial activities of Australians like copying CDs to swap with a friend.

That proposal is so outright crazy, however, that it’s hard to imagine that entering the eleventh round of TPP negotiations this week in Melbourne it’s still intact, unbracketed, on the negotiating table. Australia, for one, has maintained that it will only endorse IP standards that don’t affect domestic law, and other countries like New Zealand, who haven’t adopted IP standards as high as Australia’s, have even more to lose.

In light of the very recent conclusion of the Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), another plurilateral trade agreement stated to ‘set new standards for the enforcement of intellectual property’, it seems strange the US would even put such a proposal on the table for the TPP. ACTA, as respected Australian copyright academic Kimberlee Weatherall posited, seems to indicate a ceiling had been reached for high IP standards in international policy making.

Even if Australia is only endorsing IP provisions for the TPP that are in line with our own domestic regime, that isn’t good. Australia’s own high standards for IP enforcement and protection stem from obligations that arose under the Australian-United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), concluded in 2004. The conclusion of AUSFTA required the most significant changes to Australian IP law since the Digital Agenda amendments in 2000. The overly detailed, enforcement-focused IP chapter of that agreement imported wholesale into our domestic regime aspects of the US IP model, regardless of its compatibility with Australian IP traditions. It scrapped the balance in Australian copyright law so carefully negotiated by the Australian government and Parliament in 2000 and made it difficult for government to introduce flexible copyright policy in future.

Confirming the high standards negotiated under ACTA, and reflected in Australian law as the result of AUSFTA, sets in stone controversial IP policies whose benefits have yet to be fully understood for net-IP importing countries (although in some areas, the net detriments are readily apparent: Australia’s adoption of the life + 70 year term duration for copyright works under AUSFTA, for example, was estimated by economist Dr Philippa Dee in her report to the Senate Select Committee on AUSFTA to cost Australia up to an additional $88 million per year as the result of the term extension).

The detailed and extensive IP provisions being promoted by the US in the TPP, as it did in ACTA, AUSFTA and a series of other bilateral trade agreements throughout the mid to late 1990s, removes flexibility for countries’ legislature to amend IP policy in their own national interest. Endorsement of these high standards skips over the question altogether as to whether, economically and socially, high standards are even better for net-IP importing countries like Australia.

Eight of the nine countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement are net IP-importing countries (the United States being the obvious outlier). If the TPP is earnestly intended to “break down barriers to trade” across borders, the IP chapter should retain enough flexibility and technology neutrality to support the cross-border transfer of information, and broad access to information in the public interest.

Is there a positive IP agenda being negotiated as part of the TPP? With members of the public and civil society groups excluded from negotiations, it’s hard to say. Requests for access to draft negotiating texts by civil society organizations in the nine countries have been rejected, the papers treated in confidence purportedly to facilitate ‘candid and productive negotiations’.

A quick word on the secrecy of TPP negotiations:

First of all, it’s questionable that secrecy is ever appropriate in treaty negotiations that stand to intrude significantly into domestic policy making, and affect the public interest. Traditional vehicles for international IP policy making, being the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the World Trade Organisation, are much more transparent.

Secondly, in practice, the confidentiality of  TPP negotiating papers has proved discretionary. In the United States, for example, the United States Trade Representative has a number of ‘Advisory Committees’ who have privileged access to text and to the negotiators. With regards IP, the ‘cleared advisors’ include representatives from the International Intellectual Property Alliance, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Intellectual Property Owners Association, the Motion Picture Association of America, and the Association of American Publishers.

Thirdly, given the increasing public concern and in some cases, outright hostility towards government attempts to implement new measures for IP enforcement and protection (witnessed this year in the SOPA and PIPA protests across the United States and beyond, and the protests of thousands in Poland against EU ratification of ACTA), it simply doesn’t make good policy sense to be seen to be acting in corporate interests, rather than the interests of the public. It will damage the legitimacy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement as a platform for regional trade integration, particularly if the IP chapter is found to be lacking in appropriate safeguards in the public interest.

The recent protests against SOPA, PIPA and ACTA are no doubt in the minds of TPP negotiators as they continue to work towards a finalized agreement in Melbourne this week. The only leaked text for the IP chapter so far suggests that early TPP proposals are more enforcement focused, and lacking in balance, than the agreed text from the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

Perhaps since February 2011, negotiators responsible for the IP chapter have been developing a positive IP agenda for the Asia-Pacific region, to assist in the breakdown of barriers and obstacles to trade. What might this agenda include? Provisions to support a free and open internet. A prohibition on extraterritorial website seizure without judicial review. A provision to facilitate the cross-border transfer of works copied under an exception for people with a visual impairment. Simply, a requirement for open-ended exceptions.

When TPP negotiations recommence this Thursday in Melbourne, perhaps some of these suggestions will have made their way into the draft texts. At the very least, the negotiators should be working on ways to make the TPP IP chapter technology neutral, flexible, and balanced. If the TPP is to function as the ‘living agreement’ it aspires to be, capable of adapting to emerging issues and attractive to new members, balanced and flexible IP provisions will be essential to achieving that end.

 

15 thoughts on “Australia hosts secret trade agreement negotiations this week in Melbourne

  1. Thanks, good points throughout.

    I strongly hope our government (a ‘Labor’ Government to boot!) is not about to cave into the utterly indefensible protectionism of the US copyright industry.

  2. Only ninety five fucking years?

    I can only hope they include a rule that when anyone digitally copies anything at all they must get a man with a red flag to walk around them three times clockwise, three times anti-clockwise and then three times clockwise again. Just to be sure everyone is aware of what’s going on.

    That will really help.

    IP is a dead elephant, it’ll go down punching as hard as it can.

    After “Military Intelligence” Intellectual Property is probably the most oxymoronic of any phrase ever develop by intelligent beings.

  3. Australian Labor Party, National Platform and Constitution 2009 (ch 11):

    1 The Labor Party is committed to strengthening our democracy and giving Australians a real say in shaping our future.

    … also …

    7 Labor will do all it can to maintain and restore the integrity of government—much damaged in recent years—through increased transparency and accountability.

    … and strangely even this …

    9 The Liberal Party in government undermined the integrity and institutions of Australian democracy. Independent institutions were attacked and undermined, ministers became less accountable and government became a vehicle for advancing partisan interests.

    Oh, those naughty Liberals, perish the thought of such behaviour. But hey, let’s check out the White House website and see what Obama has to say:

    Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.

    Yes, very solemn. That thar is real sleeves rolled halfway up material that is. Better check out the Greens on this, they are part of the government too these days:

    The Australian Greens believe that integrity, accountability and openness in politics are vital to a healthy democracy. While there have been some moves to increase scrutiny and set codes of conduct for the activities inherent in the political process, these changes have been predominantly in the form of policy decisions by governments. History shows how readily these policies can be modified as deemed necessary by an incumbent government and the political vagaries of the electoral cycle.

    And the word today is “hippopotamus”, not wait, it’s a different word, how about “hipster”, hmmm, not quite right. I know, “hippocampus”, no, no, close but not quite right. It’s on the tip of my tongue, I could just about scream.

  4. the US chapter proposes to extend the copyright term for film and sound recordings by another 25 years (to life of the author + 95 years),

    The degree of arrogance and greed required to make this extortionate claim is appalling.

  5. yes, good post. Very worrying developments that are clearly against Australian interests. Tel is quite right. What can be done?

  6. IP , when reproduction and distribution were natural monopolies , developed into a sort of gentleman’s club for publishers and ‘representatives’ of authors.
    This field is dominated by people of about 55+ who really don’t understand why ‘we can not just do things as we always have’.

  7. Wikipedia tells me the EU signed ACTA but the Swiss, who were at the negotiations, didn’t. You can just see them there: the negotiators shrugging their shoulders, telling the other delegates that the proposals had no chance of approval by the Swiss people at referendum so further discussion was pointless.

    Still, Switzerland does negotiate trade treaties, and then, after the treaties are ratified by both houses of parliament, the fun starts. The authorities and the commentariat go into convulsions about how the people are about to make themselves and the government look foolish on the world stage, about how they are going to do the economy damage from which it will never recover, about how the country will be tragically divided by the French speakers voting one way and the Germans the other.

    Finally the referendum is held and zero-tariff Switzerland continues its century-long record as the most peaceful and prosperous country on earth.

    The Eurocracy finds it very frustrating that it has to meet the standards of the Swiss population. The Swiss authorities sympathise for they, too, are frustrated at the way their people have them by the short and curlies.

    This whole TPP business, and many another piece of chacanery, wouldn’t exist if the people had a real say.

  8. Again, with the secrecy.
    As AUSFTA demonstrated the real reason this stuff is done behind closed doors is to prevent the public realising what the actual consequences of imposed conditions are before they are lumbered with these.
    Commercial in confidence, FOI restricted, the list goes on and they usual seem inviting of soft corruption as well as implementing denial of necessary information for the citizenry in what used to be called, a “democracy”.

  9. The global copyright industry regards Australis as “backward” . Australia has, for constitutional nand legislative reasons, not moved far down the path of replacing copyright with privatized transaction levies on things like memory/recording devises, web traffic and the reuse of copies that have been paid for in full .
    In the EU alone there are something like 115+ collection entities and many have privatised tax-like rights ( I have left out Russia Ukraine and Switzerland) . The US and Canada are much the same. Revenues from these tax-like sources are rapidly growing and revenues from copy rights are proportionally shrinking.
    A particularly important aspect of these new privatised taxes is that they do not involve the need for consent by either individual right holders or the general public . Because public transaction levies(VAT sales taxes so on) vary so much both within and between EU countries, few know how much levies in total they are paying and even fewer know where the money ultimately ends up.

    A recent Spanish case involved the senior management of a society (with a tax on memory devices) diverting millions to his family for years before it was raided by the police, nobody had noticed the money they did not know about.

  10. THe worry is that DFAT negotiators will bargain another poor deal for us, as they did in the US FTA – although, to be fair, given that Howard had staked hi reputation on getting a deal, we always had our backs against the wall.

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  12. Can’t have self respect in an informational vaccuum. We make autists of our selves,le alone are kept in the dark and fed bullshit by our owners, and then wonder at our perplexion.
    ” Nothing he’s got he really needs,
    Twenty-first century schizoid man”
    King Crimson, late ‘sixties.

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