Targeting digital piracy

SAN FRANCISCO — Several dozen industrialized nations are quietly negotiating new rules to crack down on everything from illegal downloads of digital music to unlicensed knock-offs of brand-name goods.

The vehicle for this international assault on software piracy and trademark infringement is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. The talks include the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Canada and members of the European Union.

The most contentious part of the negotiations involves efforts to control digital copyright violations. Online activist groups worry the accord will subject Internet service providers and Web hosts to new rules requiring them to scour their networks for software pirates. “Just because you host a website doesn't mean you have to play copyright cop,” said Sherwin Siy, an attorney with the group Public Knowledge in Washington, D.C.

The closed-door nature of the negotiations has also alarmed Internet activists.

But in early April, the secrecy surrounding ACTA (which the Bush administration began in October 2007) eased a bit when the United States Trade Representative released a summary of the proposed agreement. USTR officials said the move “reflects the Obama administration's commitment to transparency.” The move also eased pressure from outside the U.S.: Canadian officials, as well as the European Parliament, have asked for the process to be made more public, according to Canadian law professor and Internet expert Michael Geist, who has written about the issue.

The scope of the proposed agreement transcends digital piracy. For instance, in one document made public by the USTR, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, representing power supply makers, said counterfeit extension cords not only cost its 430 member-firms money in the form of lost sales, but also caused safety dangers.

But digital piracy is a central concern. Its costs were spelled out in another document made public by USTR.

The International Intellectual Property Alliance — whose 1,900 U.S. members produce everything from software to movies to textbooks — said copyright-protected products account more than 6 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product and have created more than 5 million jobs. “The theft of copyrighted creative content — in both hard goods and online — severely undercuts the ability of U.S. creators,” the group said.

Internet hosts and service providers are obvious central points to monitor or control digital traffic. Copyright owners are pushing for ways to control the peer-to-peer download networks that allow individuals to make and share unlicensed copies in a trickle of small violations, no single one of which is severe, but which, taken together, cause a considerable loss of revenue. Online activists worry that excessive monitoring requirements will impose costs and liabilities on website hosts, thus stifling innovation.

The summary released by USTR in April did not indicate how international negotiators proposed to deal with this issue. USTR said negotiators were discussing “the possible roles and responsibilities of Internet service providers in deterring copyright and related rights piracy,” but added that no specific proposals have been put on the table.

But the U.S. wants the agreement to address the problem. “Today, the Internet is how the world communicates and addressing piracy on the Internet is an issue that the world cannot ignore,” a USTR representative told GlobalPost in an email. “The challenge for our negotiators is how to best and most fairly deal with piracy while ensuring that all the proper checks and balances that are in U.S. law are protected.”

The USTR offered no timetable for conclusion of the talks.

Activists, meanwhile, say the ACTA process undercuts a United Nations body — the World Intellectual Property Organization — that has purview over this terrain. Siy, with Public Knowledge, said WIPO includes developing nations like India and Brazil that push back against strict enforcement of intellectual property rules for reasons of national interest, making the United Nations forum more friendly to activists. The industrialized nations involved in ACTA were more likely to favor copyright owners, Siy said.

The USTR, meanwhile, portrays ACTA's select group of nations as the best forum in which to resolve some tough and technical issues.

“The ACTA will be a leadership agreement, setting a positive example for nations that aspire to strengthen intellectual property rights enforcement,” a USTR representative told GlobalPost, adding “We fully support the important work of the WIPO.”

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