How the Trans-Pacific Partnership impacts digital consumers

34 USTR logoThe 16th round of negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership wrapped up in Singapore this week, and according to the official press release the intellectual property chapter is one of a small number of chapters (along with competition and environment) that remain unresolved, and will be the focus of the remaining negotiating rounds.

One of the effects of the TPP's intellectual property chapter would be to beef up the enforcement of intellectual property rights, like the controversial and ill-fated Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) before it. (Indeed, it is sad to say that one of the promising developments from recent rounds of the TPP have been rumours that the United States may be willing to “settle” for the same level of intellectual property enforcement that ACTA provides, rather than maintaining its demand for even stricter standards.)

For example, it has already been mentioned above that artists and fans will be denied access to the free use of cultural works from the 20th century – to give a Malaysian example, the films of P Ramlee that are currently (but may not be for much longer) winding up their terms of copyright protection. If a Ramlee fan were to maintain an downloadable archive of clips from his songs and films anyway, even if it was conducted on a purely not for profit basis, the TPP would render our fan liable not only to civil damages, but criminal liability. He could end up with a criminal record simply for attempting to preserve Malaysian cultural heritage.

In addition, the TPP would prohibit the use of tools to allow access to copyright works protected by digital locks. This means that even for a Ramlee film that is in the public domain and therefore free to legally copy, it would be a separate offence to rip a DVD of the film, since DVDs are protected by a trivial form of digital lock. Even more surreal, it could be an offence to even play such a film on a region-free DVD player, as region-free players can be characterised as devices for the circumvention of DVD region codes. It does not even cross the mind of any right-thinking consumer that doing this would breach any copyright law, and yet under the TPP, it would – along with other innocent activities such as unlocking a legally-purchased mobile phone handset.

Compounding this, the TPP would restrict parallel importation, which is the right for local businesses to import cheaper legal copies of goods from overseas, rather than being held to ransom by local monopoly suppliers. The TPP in other words deliberately reduces cross-border competition (ironically, this in a free trade agreement), to justify companies charging higher prices for the same product wherever they think they can get away with it. This would mean, to give just one example, an end to the supply of parallel imported CDs, which currently occurs legally in TPP negotiating countries like Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, and which they rely upon to counteract the blatant price discrimination to which they are otherwise subject.

Read more in "How the Trans-Pacific Partnership threatens online rights and freedoms" at Digital News Asia.

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