Leaked treaty is a Hollywood wish list. Could it derail Obama’s trade agenda?

November 13, 2013

(Photo by operation_janet)

Officially, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade treaty that will ease the flow of goods and services among the United States, Canada, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia, and other nations along the Pacific Rim. But it has attracted criticism for its secrecy, and for the inclusion of controversial provisions related to copyright, patent, and trademark protections.

Today the transparency organization Wikileaks released an August draft of the "intellectual property" chapter of the treaty. It's a forest of square brackets, indicating that many provisions are still under negotiation by the parties. But those brackets reveal a clear pattern: the United States has been using the treaty as a vehicle to pressure its negotiating partners to make their laws more favorable to the interests of U.S. filmmakers, drug companies, and other large holders of copyright and patent rights.

The leaked draft is 95 pages long, and includes provisions on everything from copyright damages to rules for marketing pharmaceuticals. Several proposed items are drawn from Hollywood's wish list. The United States wants all signatories to extend their copyright terms to the life of the author plus 70 years for individual authors, and 95 years for corporate-owned works. The treaty includes a long section, proposed by the United States, requiring the creation of legal penalties for circumventing copy-protection schemes such as those that prevent copying of DVDs and Kindle books.

The United States has also pushed for a wide variety of provisions that would benefit the U.S. pharmaceutical and medical device industries. The Obama administration wants to require the extension of patent protection to plants, animals, and medical procedures. It wants to require countries to offer longer terms of patent protection to compensate for delays in the patent application process. The United States also wants to bar the manufacturers of generic drugs from relying on safety and efficacy information that was previously submitted by a brand-name drug maker — a step that would make it harder for generic manufacturers to enter the pharmaceutical market and could raise drug prices.

In some cases, such as the length of copyright term, the United States is seeking to enshrine current provisions of U.S. law as an international norm. But in other cases, the U.S. position appears to run counter to U.S. law. For example, Canada has proposed language protecting Internet service providers such as YouTube from liability if their customers use their service to distribute works that infringe copyright. American law has provided such liability protection since 1998, yet the Obama administration is listed as opposing a requirement that nations "shall limit the liability of, or the availability of remedies against, internet service providers." (Update (November 18): This turns out to be a poorly-chosen example. The US favored an alternative safe harbor proposal that seems to be roughly as protective of ISPs and closer to US law. It's my fault for not reading the draft carefully enough before posting this story.)

"It's impressive to me how well this chapter plays into the fears that folks who are concerned about intellectual property expansion have about the TPP," says Bill Watson, a trade scholar at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "It really seems to be their worst nightmare."

Watson is an advocate for free trade, and warns that "intellectual property issues are coming to threaten the trade agenda. Folks who are concerned about IP policy are going to oppose this agreement just on those grounds."

It wouldn't be unprecedented for concerns about patent and trademark issues to derail the larger TPP treaty. Last year, in the wake of a populist backlash against the Stop Online Piracy Act in the United States, European activists stopped ratification of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement in the European parliament.

Update: The office of the United States Trade Representative comments:

The intellectual property negotiation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership discussions has not been completed and a final text has not been agreed to. We are working with Congress, stakeholders, and our TPP negotiating partners to reach an outcome that promotes high-paying jobs in innovative American industries and reflects our values, including by seeking strong and balanced copyright protections, as well as advancing access to medicines while incentivizing the development of new, life-saving drugs.

Correction: This story originally used iTunes music as an example of a copy-protected file format, but iTunes music is no longer DRM-protected. We regret the error.

Disclosure: I worked at the Cato Institute from 2003 to 2005. Details are available on my disclosure page.

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Brian Fung | November 13, 2013