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ACTA and SOPA might be dead and buried, but the specter of draconian copyright law still lingers, as the leak of the latest draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty shows us.
The treaty – currently being written and developed by twelve countries – could soon see ISPs liable for the activities of their users, extended copyright terms, and the act of circumventing Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology criminalized.
Troublingly, the passing of the Trans Pacific Partnership Treaty could also threaten independent journalism – it contains provisions that criminalize the leaking of trade secrets.
Worried? You should be. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is draconian, awful and could cripple the digital economy. With that said, knowledge is power, and here’s what you need to know about this nightmarish treaty.
What Is The Trans-Pacific Partnership?
On the face of things, the Trans-Pacific Partnership looks quite innocent. The treaty – which is described as a ‘regional free trade agreement’ – aims to increase trade between twelve nations (including the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mexico and China) by reducing and removing tariffs, as well as through ‘regulatory coherence’.
This essentially means ensuring that laws regarding certain topics are effectively identical in practice across each signatory country. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It could be argued that having the same laws for things like food safety, agriculture and workplace safety in Europe has contributed to higher goods standards in the European Union and streamlined internal trade.
However, this only works when the legislation being pushed is good, and serves everyone’s interests. And it’s only good when legislation is decided in the open, unlike the TPP, which is being discussed and debated in secret. And, as the leaked treaty posted by Wikileaks shows, the TPP is a horrendous piece of legislation.
What’s So Wrong With The Trans-Pacific Partnership
Whilst the Trans-Pacific Partnership could indeed increase trade and raise living standards in the signatory countries, they come with some pretty horrendous intellectual property provisions.
You could be forgiven for thinking that DRM is a dying beast. After all, most digital music purchases that are made today are DRM free. Apple stopped releasing music encoded with its proprietary FairPlay DRM technology in 2009, whilst online services like GOG sell DRM free video games.
Yet, DRM still exists for some things, including for e-books, video and software. Whilst in the US it has been illegal to circumvent DRM for a long time, courtesy of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which amusingly also made it illegal to unlock cell phones), the same is not true for countries who would be signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
For the sake of fairness, it’s worth noting that the TPP does permit countries who ratify the TPP treaty to have exemptions written into law. Though, according to the EFF, the treaty states that these should be limited to specific use-cases, such as security researchers searching for a security vulnerability.
ISPs, Censorship and Liability
The role of the ISP is best described as that of a courier, or the post office. They’re not responsible for the contents of the packages they carry. They’re just responsible for ensuring they get from A to B.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership could threaten that principle.
ISPs would only retain their lack of responsibility if they signed up for a DMCA-style blocking system, where content could be blocked without even a court order. Just an allegation and a demand.
The TPP – when completed – could also see copyright infringement become a criminal offense, even for noncommercial infringement. This is troubling when you consider that until recently, it’s been regarded as a civil matter. People found to be sharing and downloading movies and music have been sued, but seldom ever jailed. That could soon change.
Threats To Journalism
It should go without saying that some companies do things that are rather unpopular, and try their hardest to keep them a secret from the public as a result.
And it should also go without saying that some news organizations – like Wikileaks and The Guardian – have had to publish leaked company secrets when it’s decided that it’s in the public interest. This is the very nature of journalism.
So, it should trouble everyone that the TPP has provisions that could criminalize whistleblowing. From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
A new, more detailed provision on trade secrets introduces text that would criminalize the unauthorized, willful access of a trade secret held in a computer system, or the misappropriation or disclosure of a trade secret using a computer system… No public interest exception, such as for journalism, is provided.
Extended Copyright Terms
In most countries around the world, copyright ownership is finite. After a set time-limit elapses – usually a set number of years after a work is created, or the creator dies – the work then goes into what’s called the public domain. This means that nobody owns the copyright on that work, and anyone is free to use that work however they see fit all without having to pay anyone.
Whilst the TPP allows countries to specify how long their copyright term is, it could potentially set a minimum limit of years. This could range from anywhere between life, plus 50 years, or life plus 100 years.
This is worrying, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it could see the copyright durations on everything from photography, to classical music extended by a great many years.
But also, one should remember that it’s not just cultural works that are copyrighted. So are pharmaceuticals. When a ‘brand name’ drug lapses into the public domain, it means that people can produce that drug very cheaply as a generic. Should the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty extend copyright law, it could see people pay much, much more for medicines.
As a result, it shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that the pharmaceutical industry has been lobbying heavily for the passing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
How Can I Fight It?
Defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be hard, but it’s not impossible. Firstly, inform yourself on the treaty by actually reading what it says. Secondly, support those fighting against it, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the United States. Finally, contact your local senator, congressman and parliamentarian, and let them know your thoughts on the matter.
Have you got any thoughts on the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Let me know. Drop me a comment in the box below.