It’s been quite a while since I last wrote about the highly contentious Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA), an international treaty that seeks to impose standardized copyright laws around the world. The agreement has been on and off the ropes for months, as the European Parliament has struggled amidst anti-ACTA protests and the pleas of passionate supporters. But this morning, ACTA suffered a rejection that likely foreshadows its death.
Earlier today, a fifth parliamentary committee voted that the European Union reject ACTA when it comes up for a full parliament vote early next month. Over the past few weeks, four other committees — Industry, Civil Liberties, Development, Legal Affairs — all voted against EU adoption of ACTA, despite impassioned arguments from the treaty’s supporters.
Is ACTA really dead? Not yet.
The 19-12 rejection from the International Trade committee (known as INTA) was viewed by many as a linchpin decision capable of determining ACTA’s fate in Europe, and thus its effectiveness as an international treaty.
This, however, isn’t exactly the case. Committee votes are simply to help Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) decide how to vote on particular issues, with each committee lending its particular expertise on an issue. But considering the high-profile nature of ACTA, it is likely that MEPs already know how they will vote. Still, the fact that five committees have now recommended a rejection of ACTA shows that the treaty has little chance of European adoption.
Remind me what ACTA is again…
As mentioned, ACTA seeks to establish international standards for copyright protection, and a legal framework for combating the illegal distribution of copyrighted goods, including music and movies, medicine, and knock-off physical goods. Further, ACTA would establish an independent governing body, an “ACTA committee,” which would oversee the implementation of intellectual property laws.
ACTA has already been signed by 31 countries around the world, including the United States, Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Morocco, and New Zealand. The EU and 22 member states have also signed — but so far, the treaty has not been ratified by any country. (In fact, the U.S. claims that it is not really a treaty, but simply an “executive agreement,” which means it does not have to be ratified by Congress.)
Why are people so against ACTA?
Complaints against ACTA run far and wide. But here are the main points of contention:
First, many civil liberty advocates believe ACTA would threaten freedom of speech and expression online by imposing strict laws against the distribution of intellectual property.
Second, ACTA would allow customs agents to seize property they believe infringe upon copyright laws, even if the final destination of those goods do not violate laws in their destination country. This means that generic drugs could be confiscated en route to the country where they are needed, something critics say unfairly punishes third-world nations where this type of medicine is dearly needed.
This point caused French MEP Kader Arif to resign in the early days of ACTA’s consideration in Europe.
“The problem with ACTA is that, by focusing on the fight against violation of intellectual property rights in general, it treats a generic drug just as a counterfeited drug,” said Arif in an interview with the Guardian. “This means the patent holder can stop the shipping of the drugs to a developing country, seize the cargo and even order the destruction of the drugs as a preventive measure.”
Third, ACTA pushes for countries to create strict copyright protection legislation, but does not include any incentives for the implementation of safety valves, like fair use and public domain — two key legal features we enjoy here in the U.S.
Finally, ACTA was negotiated in near secret, which meant that very few of the people would be affected by the treaty had any say in its contents. This made ACTA an enemy of the people from the start.
What happens if the EU rejects ACTA?
A “no” vote for ACTA in Europe would greatly reduce its relevance and effectiveness — international treaties only work when countries actually decide to abide by them. Without Europe on board, ACTA would be meaningless in most of the world. Other countries could still choose to ratify ACTA, but without Europe (or China, which has never been part of the process), the treaty would be largely impotent.
Given the intense lobbying for ACTA, the treaty still has a chance of adoption in Europe — but today’s rejection by INTA makes that chance far smaller. That said, even if the European Parliament rejects ACTA when it votes in about 10 days, it’s entirely possible — even likely — that another, similar treaty will be submitted. And then we’ll go ’round and ’round again.