Monday, February 18, 2013
Piracy in the Caribbean: WTO Approval of Antigua and Barbuda Piracy Site
The World Trade Organization (WTO) has taken a controversial step in an effort to settle the score between the United States (US) and Antigua and Barbuda: authorizing the suspension of US copyrights in Antigua and Barbuda. This move in essence allows the islands to give away US copyrighted material without compensation to the copyright holders. While actual implementation of a government-powered website that freely distributes US copyrighted material might be a distant reality, this WTO action could ignite a disastrous ripple effect and is being highly scrutinized by member countries who are wondering if these retaliatory legal measures are in line with the spirit of the WTO.
US intellectual property rights, specifically copyright laws, prevent anyone but the copyright owner or someone they authorize from distributing or otherwise utilizing the copyrighted material - music, film, books, games, software, and photographs. The WTO has each member country agree to honor every other member country’s intellectual property laws. Respecting other member country’s laws is imperative in maintaining the harmonious spirit of the WTO and promoting free trade, and this protection can sometimes be a driving force behind a country’s decision to join the WTO. The WTO has the authority to issue decisions that are binding and punitive on member countries, which the countries must agree to comply with when joining the organization.
In 2007, the US and Antigua and Barbuda’s disagreement over online gambling services was brought to the WTO’s Dispute Settlement body, the highest trade body in the world. The US claimed they had inadvertently agreed to place no restrictions on the ability of foreign countries to provide online gambling services to US citizens. Antigua and Barbuda had invested millions of dollars in furnishing such services to US citizens under the belief that the US government was allowing this to happen, and when the US government later attempted to stop these services, Antigua and Barbuda lost money and many of their citizens lost jobs, creating a crisis for the islands. The WTO ruled that although the US’ agreement to no restrictions may have been unintended, the government had acted carelessly in outlining their restrictions and the agreement was binding because other countries had relied on it. The WTO ruled that the US must follow through with removing the restrictions on foreign online gambling services, or alternatively, compensate affected countries for their losses.
But since the ruling in 2007, the US has dragged its feet in following through with the WTO’s orders. On Monday, January 28, 2013, the WTO gave Antigua and Barbuda the final authorization to suspend US copyrights and implement a government-run website that can freely distribute US copyrighted materials, worth up to the sum of $21 million dollars a year, for as long as the US continues to refuse to comply with the WTO order. This measure is categorized as a retaliatory compensatory measure, typically implemented when a member country does not comply with a WTO ruling to the harm of another member country. The harmed member country is then allowed to retaliate in a proportionate manner to the non-compliant member country.
The WTO may have gone too far with this ruling, however. The suspension of intellectual property rights does not seem to have a clear ending point; once one song, for example, if freely distributed, copies can be made over and over again, creating an aggregate loss of much more than $21 million, the set limit imposed by the ruling. Suspension of copyright laws is not a defined enough penalty to be proportionate to the losses Antigua and Barbuda felt by the US’ actions, and the US could end up losing much more than the islands ever had.
It also seems that this sort of authorized retaliatory ruling is not within the spirit of the WTO, whose mission is to promote harmonious free trade throughout the countries of the world. US Trade Representatives have already expressed concern over the ruling, suggesting that this move would further spoil business relations between the countries involved. Imposing this harsh of a penalty on a country that claims to have inadvertently entered into this mess sets a precedent for other countries that they need to be afraid and tedious in their agreements, or else they may find themselves retaliated against, with the retaliation sanctioned by the WTO. This discourages blossoming countries from entering into the WTO, and encourages existing members to be as withholding as possible in their agreements to what services they allow foreign countries to provide. All of these effects are in direct conflict with what the WTO was designed to accomplish.
For now the world must wait to see if the US and Antigua and Barbuda can come to some alternative agreement before the drastic measures of the government-sponsored piracy site are taken. If the piracy website is realized, the WTO should brace itself for the severe backlash from not only the US, but all other countries who fear the extent of the retaliatory measures the WTO is comfortable with authorizing.
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