ACTA: What Is This Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement?

ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is something you will probably not hear much about. Maybe a small general item at the end of the news. Chances are the tabloids will not mention it at all and it’s unlikely to be promoted to front page headlines in any broadsheet newspaper. But believe me, ACTA is something that will affect every man, woman and child using the internet right now. And not in a good way. Just when we thought the US government’s freedom-limiting legislation SOPA and PIPA had been dealt potential fatal body blows, ACTA threatens to slip in through the back door.

What Is ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) Anyway?

In broad terms, ACTA is an international agreement drawn up in secret by a strange hodge-podge of countries led by the USA (who else?), the European Union, South Korea, Singapore, Morocco, New Zealand and Canada. It has been heavily lobbied for around the world by the big drug, music and movie corporations and has attracted much hostility from the majority of legitimate pro-freedom groups, who consider it a dangerous threat to the internet. It’s primary stated aim is to “create international standards on intellectual property rights enforcement”. The title of the treaty might suggest that it primarily deals with counterfeit goods but in reality it has far broader scope and that’s where it gets tricky.

What most people have against ACTA is that it takes counterfeiting and piracy and makes them the same thing, much in the same way that the Christian Right in the USA talk of Communists and sexual deviants in the same breath. Two different enemies made one. In my limited experience, it’s the right-wingers who are more likely to be sexually deviant: you almost expect neo-Nazis to keep a stash of chains, whips and gimp-masks in the garage. Alternating between searching for the best place to buy gold, whilst salivating over a weird sexual fetish. But I digress…

With ACTA, the twin stated enemies are counterfeiters and pirates. But how can it be right that the owners of an organised and well-funded factory in Mexico (for example), pumping out thousands of illicit copies of the latest Hollywood blockbuster DVD or top-selling rock CD should be treated practically the same as a teenager in Perivale illicitly sharing an Amy Winehouse track?

Furthermore, ACTA authorizes the signing governments to penalise the ISPs – Internet Service Providers such as BT, Virgin and so on – for the actions of their clients. So, if I use my broadband connection to distribute pirated movies, BT can be taken to court. That’s like the local council being fined when drug dealers use their highways to transport heroin. So, obviously the ISPs are going to start snooping to see what we are up to and almost certainly limiting our access to the internet. According to the Free Software Foundation, ACTA would require ISPs not to host free software that can access copyrighted media, and it would no longer be legal for DRM-protected media to be playable with free or open source software.

ACTA’s supporters include all the big movie, drug and record corporations, including News Corporation, Viacom, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi-Aventis, Monsanto, Time Warner, Universal, Sony, Verizon, Walt Disney, and the Motion Picture Association of America. These are multinational corporations who are struggling to come to terms with modern life. Throughout history Big Business has been scared of new technology and has proved unable to adapt. Remember when IBM was the biggest thing in computing? And when Phillips had the whole cassette tape market sewn up?

Think back, if you’re old enough, to when photocopiers began to be commercially available to small businesses? Publishing companies tried to get them banned and at the very least metered so that they’d get a rake-off for every copy made, a “tax” still in force in many libraries around the world. Today, even though anyone can buy a new colour photocopier/ scanner/ printer from Amazon for less than £25, no sane person buys one in order to copy books they’ve borrowed for free from the library. Epson Stylus SX130 Compact All-in-One Printer (Print, Copy and Scan)  For one thing, it wouldn’t be worth anyone’s while because the cost of the materials would be approaching the retail price of the book you were making.

Remember the campaign from the music industry in the 1980s-1990s that made “home recording is killing live music” the mantra you saw every time you opened up the NME or put on a record? Well, it didn’t. What really began the death-knell for the record industry was them selling CDS that cost less than a pound to produce for upwards of £15 – and that was 10-15 years ago, the equivalent to £50-£60 in today’s currency. Greed and the inability to adapt to the modern way of life is doing for the record industry and will probably do for the major movie and pharmaceutical corporations too. It’s just a matter of time.

If the big drug companies were not pricing vital life-saving drugs out of the reach of the Third World and trying to ban generic treatments (by sledgehammer methods like ACTA), would anyone bother counterfeiting them? If Nike or Dr Martin sold their footware at prices close to what they cost to produce and not with mark-ups of 2,500 per cent and more profit, would they have a counterfeiting problem? That the top movie and rock stars are paid millions of dollars (it’s usually dollars), proves that there’s still plenty of money sloshing around. Instead of stopping teenagers from swapping their music, the music industry would be better served employing them to scrap their current business plans and working out something that will work in the Internet Age.

Nobody condones counterfeiting, which generally involves passing off inferior goods as the real thing. This is especially true of life-saving drugs. The very nature of counterfeiting involves the end-user being deceived as to the origin of what they are buying. Piracy is different. When a product is pirated, the consumer is usually aware that they are bypassing legal channels – and they don’t usually give two hoots. Although the law says differently, most people believe that when they buy a CD or DVD (usually for a relatively large amount of money), it becomes their property and if they want to run off a copy for a mate, they should be able to. ACTA would make them criminals liable to a major penalty.

ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) Poses A Real Problem For All Of Us

As the French campaigning website La Quadrature du Net states: “ACTA would impose new criminal sanctions forcing Internet actors to monitor and censor online communications. It is thus a major threat to freedom of expression online and creates legal uncertainty for Internet companies. In the name of trademarks and patents, it would also hamper access to generic medicines in poor countries.” Their spokesman Jérémie Zimmermann elaborates: “This element of language is known to us as part of the vocabulary of the ‘copyright Talibans’, as we call it. If you treat Chinese manufacturers who create counterfeit DVDs or medicines in the same way you treat individuals sharing not-for-profit in their homes you know that you will have problems.” Click for more about ACTA at La Quadrature du Net.

ACTA is a backdoor way for government and global corporations to restrict the internet and our freedoms. It’s up to us to resist it as forcefully as we can. Just don’t expect the media – who have a vested interest in controlling piracy – to keep you informed.