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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 April 2007, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
'Ignore the US copyright bullies'
Internet law professor Michael Geist says countries should resist US bullying tactics over copyright and intellectual property.

night vision goggles
Night vision goggles are used to detect film pirates
This week the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), the U.S. government department responsible for international trade, will release its annual report card on intellectual property protection around the world.

The Special 301 report typically identifies about 50 countries that the US has targeted for legal reform.

The report may at times be reminiscent of the classic movie Casablanca - the USTR rounds up the usual suspects and is shocked to find that their legal rules do not match those adopted in the US - yet it has historically had a significant impact in many countries who fear potential trade sanctions.

Indeed, the recent U.S. piracy complaint against China at the World Trade Organization sent a strong message that intellectual property issues are now a major trade issue.

US dissatisfaction with intellectual property protection typically bears little relation to whether the country actually meets international standards.

'Virtual certainty'

For example, this year it is a virtual certainty that Canada will receive special attention, with the U.S. claiming that the country has neglected to address critical issues and suggesting that it is rapidly emerging as a piracy haven.

Prof Michael Geist (Michael Geist)
Not only are the policies suspect, but the USTR report should be seen for what it is - a biased analysis of foreign law supported by a well-orchestrated lobby effort
Michael Geist

While the report will generate media headlines and cries for immediate action, the reality is that Canada meets all of its international copyright obligations.

Moreover, differences between the US and Canadian economies - the US is a major exporter of cultural products and has therefore unsurprisingly made stronger copyright protection a core element of its trade strategy while Canada is a net importer of cultural products with a billion dollar annual culture deficit - means that US-backed reforms may do more harm than good.

Consider three issues likely to generate criticism in the Special 301 report - ratification of the World Intellectual Property Organization's Internet treaties, extension of the term of copyright from life of the author plus 50 years to life plus 70 years, and the introduction of anti-camcording legislation designed to stem movie piracy.

Notwithstanding the pressure on many countries to act on these issues, even one-time U.S. supporters are beginning to admit that these policies are open to doubt.

Marybeth Peters, the U.S. Registrar of Copyrights has noted that the US extension of copyright was a "big mistake," and the President of the US National Theater Owners Association has advised his members that notwithstanding the introduction of anti-camcording laws, unauthorised camcording in the US is on the rise.

Not only are the policies suspect, but the USTR report should be seen for what it is - a biased analysis of foreign law supported by a well-orchestrated lobby effort.

Trade agreements

Since the mid-1990s, the USTR has placed intellectual property protection at the very top of its priority list. As a result, dozens of countries have entered into trade agreements with the US in which they undertake to implement US-style intellectual property protections.

Pirated software and DVDs
The US is trying to protect exports

Over the past decade, it has concluded trade agreements with countries in every corner of the globe, including Australia, Singapore, Morocco, Chile, Jordan, and a handful of Central American countries.

The latest example is this month's free trade agreement between the US and South Korea.

As part of that deal, the US demanded that South Korea extend the term of copyright, ratify the WIPO Internet treaties, decrease Korean content requirements, and open Korean broadcast and telecommunications companies to total US ownership.

'Intense lobbying'

Even those countries with trade agreements in place - the North American Free Trade Agreement pre-dates the shift in USTR priorities - have not been spared intense US lobbying.

For example, in recent months US Ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, has publicly called on Canada to introduce copyright reform, characterising the country's laws as the weakest in the G7.

He conveniently overlooks the fact that the G7 no longer exists and that references to the G8, which includes Russia, would not be accurate), while US Senators Dianne Feinstein and John Cornyn have written a public letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper demanding anti-camcording legislation.

Canadian government documents obtained under the Access to Information Act reveal that lobbying pressure is even more intense behind closed doors.

While the USTR report and its supporters seek to paint many countries as laggards on copyright, this rhetoric ignores the fact that many of those same countries are compliant with their international obligations.

In fact, of the three highlighted issues (WIPO ratification, copyright extension, and camcording), only three of 192 United Nations members - the US, Singapore, and the Czech Republic - have completed all three so-called reforms.

No country should be in a rush to become the fourth country on that list. The USTR may dole out many failing grades, however, the real failure lies with countries that cave into such bullying by enacting laws that are not in their national interest.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

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