US Copyright Official Discounts ACTA Concerns

U.S. copyright official Steven Tepp said Tuesday he doesn't understand many of the current objections to the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a 37-nation effort to enforce copyright and counterfeit laws across international borders.

Tepp, senior counsel for policy and international affairs at the U.S. Copyright Office, dismissed objections to ACTA voiced by representatives of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), an intellectual-property research and advocacy group, during a debate on the trade agreement at the Future of Music Coalition's Washington, D.C., policy forum.

Concerns from CEA that ACTA negotiations haven't been transparent are now moot since the text of the agreement, as negotiated so far, was released April 20, Tepp said. And concerns from CEA and KEI that the agreement would impose new copyright rules without offering the counterbalance of fair use rights are unfounded because the agreement doesn't change current copyright law in the U.S., he said.

U.S negotiators are committed to keeping the scope of ACTA from going beyond current copyright law, Tepp said during a heated debate about the controversial trade agreement. The goal of the agreement is to create a gold standard of copyright enforcement that nations could adopt, not to change existing U.S. law, he said.

ACTA is needed because organized crime groups and businesses ignored by many governments are making huge profits by copying materials covered by copyright, Tepp said, who noted during the debate that he hopes the treaty text will be finished by the end of the year.

"Quite candidly, we're in the midst of a worldwide epidemic of copyright piracy," Tepp said. "A global problem needs a global solution."

Tepp's assurances didn't stop Michael Patricone, CEA's senior vice president of government affairs, and Malini Aisola, a senior research associate at KEI, from raising concerns about ACTA.

The text of the agreement was finally released in April after more than two years of negotiations, and there's still no formal mechanism for interested organizations to have ongoing input into negotiations, Patricone said. Before the text was released, some groups interested in copyright issues were asked by U.S. negotiators to comment without seeing the agreement, and in other cases, groups were allowed to see the agreement under strict nondisclosure agreements, he said.

After KEI filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get information on ACTA, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) denied the request in March 2009 on the grounds of national security.

Despite the past requests from KEI and other groups and the two-and-half year lapse between the announcement of ACTA and the release of its text, Tepp discounted concerns that interested parties weren't able to provide input on the agreement. "No one has been shut out," he said.

In addition, the agreement seems to take steps to penalize copyright infringement without allowing for fair use, he added. Fair use allows some use of materials covered by copyright without the permission of the copyright holder.

ACTA also appears to expand penalties for companies that aid and abet copyright infringement, Patricone said. Under the current language in article 2.15 of ACTA, executives of companies that aid copyright infringement would face fines or prison terms. Depending on how broadly that language is interpreted, ISPs, Web sites and electronics manufacturers could be held liable for copyright infringement, Patricone said.

ACTA could "severely harm industries like ours," he said.

Several groups have raised other concerns about ACTA, including a number of public health groups worried about generic drugs being confiscated by border agents, Aisola said.

Under current language, each nation signing on to ACTA would be required to "adopt and maintain appropriate measures" for inspecting shipments that are suspected to contain counterfeit or pirated goods. Public health groups are concerned that ACTA would allow border agents to halt the import of generic drugs into countries, Aisola said.

Concerns about border enforcement, human rights and other issues raised by KEI are "fairly wild," and aren't part of the language of the agreement, Tepp said. "Show me the words that you want changed," he told Aisola.

It's not fair that the U.S. government has kept ACTA a secret for most of the negotiations, and now Tepp is complaining about the concerns that KEI and other groups have raised in recent weeks, Patricone said.

Other panelists defended ACTA. There are businesses stealing from U.S. musicians and making money, said Richard Bengloff president of the American Association of Independent Music.

"We're going to support anything of any type that stops this crime," Bengloff said. "We do have to slam the door and have a worldwide policy like ACTA."

Patricone questioned Bengloff's assertion that his group would support "anything" that stops piracy.

"If the philosophy that's articulated is that 'we'll support any agreement that appears to go after piracy irregardless of the damaging and correlating impact to other legitimate industries,' that's not acceptable," he said.

Contact Grant Gross at grant_gross@idg.com. He's on Twitter at GrantusG.

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