Trading away

Being against free trade these days is of course like being against free speech - it's heresy, and you'd better have a bloody good reason for it.

Being against free trade these days is of course like being against free speech – it's heresy, and you'd better have a bloody good reason for it.

But the government's current obsession with nailing a bilateral free trade deal with the US or China would have its costs, as listening to countries like Canada and Mexico – and depleting collections of workers in the US itself – reveals. Free trade has benefits, to economies and individual manufacturers and exporters, but there are, well, trade-offs.

To sign a deal with the US, the trade-off of note to IT lies in intellectual property practices. The TRIPS agreement and WIPO have put intellectual property issues like copyright firmly on the trade agenda. The US in particular, one of the very few countries in the world to export more than it imports in copyrighted material, has been keen on strengthening copyright protections and increasing the term for which they apply, its own much-criticised Digital Millennium Copyright Act being the ultimate vehicle. The downside of law like the DMCA has been complaints of individual computer user rights being trampled, fear of lawsuits for publishing material that runs counter to its interpreted hard line, and a reduction in "fair use" copyrights.

The recent review of our own Copyright Act contains some interesting proposals, such as allowing some reverse engineering, permitting duplicates of copyright material for personal purposes and limiting rights management technology from revealing private information. Such changes would run counter to the draconian spirit of the DMCA. Australia is already showing signs of taking more of the US approach to copyright, presumably in its breathless pursuit of a trade deal, and we often follow our neighbours lead on such matters. On the same line of thinking, the recent review of the Patents Act may opt for wider acceptance of software and computer methods applications, something that has been allowed in the US for a couple of decades.

The legal brains went elsewhere in my family, but it is clear that if the government can be persuaded by one lobby group to amend the law in its favour, it will find it that much more difficult to withstand the will of the US government and the legal armour-plating of its multinational culture producers.

Last month the Copyright (Parallel Importation of Films and Onus of Proof) Amendment Bill was passed. Among other things, it moved the burden of proof covering suspected pirated goods to the importer and banned the parallel importation of films for nine months from the date of its release. “The film ban will give the film distribution industry a period of protection to allow for the orderly release of films, videos and DVDs. It aims to ensure that New Zealand picture theatres, particularly in rural and small communities, can continue to offer a wide range of film titles to New Zealand audiences,” said Associate Commerce Minister Judith Tizard. Orderly release? Rural communities? Like DVD "zones", this change is designed to extend a lovely privilege to movie companies keen to maintain their own profitable control of the way films are released, marketed and distributed -- to milk their herd of cash cows as they see fit for as long as possible.

Trade barriers like these could actually encourage piracy. A very sensible suggestion was made earlier this year at an industry conference in Australia; it mooted that a simultaneous release of titles worldwide would give movie outfits a quick bang for their buck. Then by releasing the DVD a few months later, again simultaneously worldwide and hopefully at a price somewhere between a cinema ticket and that currently on DVD stickers, it could greatly lessen consumer desire that can only be sated by buying (for full price) online or (cheaply, but illegally) from pirates.

As for patents, the possibility of allowing more software and business methods to be accepted could prove a nightmare. Plans toward this have caused uproar in Europe. In the US, worried about IP lawsuits causing IT innovation to a grinding halt, the Federal Trade Commission has just issued proposals to make it harder to get and easier to challenge a patent -- and bigger penalties for wilful infringement. "Questionable patents may slow innovation and raise costs to businesses and consumers by discouraging firms from conducting research and development and inducing unnecessary licensing."

US authorities clearly realise they have a problem. The FTC's suggestions accompany separate moves to better fund the US Patent Office, which has a big chunk of its application revenue -- its sole source of funding -- siphoned off by government for unrelated spending. There is talk about increasing the price of applications, though this would has the trade-off of penalising individual applicants rather than corporations. Which is where we came in.

Broatch is Computerworld's deputy editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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