When does secrecy become counter productive

By Peter Griffin

Intellectual property will generate heated debate at the next TPP meeting. Photo / NZH
Intellectual property will generate heated debate at the next TPP meeting. Photo / NZH

When trade diplomats gather in Singapore next month for the latest round of secret negotiations in the wide-ranging Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the issue of intellectual property will again generate heated debate on the sidelines.

Trade agreements usually deal with tariff reductions and market access rules.

But the TPPA, which the New Zealand Government claims could result in gains worth more than $3 billion for the country, is unusually broad in scope, including provisions that could also affect how consumers access internet content and companies innovate in the digital space.

Fuelling the controversy is a draft of the intellectual property chapter of the agreement that found its way on to the internet in 2011 and which has become "Exhibit No. 1" for a wide range of activist groups, politicians and academics worried New Zealand is signing up to a deal that will curb internet freedom and stunt the growth of its knowledge economy.

The IP text, which was verified as genuine but may have altered significantly since the leak, includes provisions to tighten protection of intellectual property, provisions that by default favour the US as the biggest net exporter of IP in the world.

Included is a clause extending copyright to "70 years after the author's death", up from the 50-year period that currently exists. Another provision grants authors the power to authorise or prohibit reproductions of their works "including temporary storage in electronic form".

The problem there is that the internet relies on temporary reproduction of electronic files - from the cache on your internet browser to duplicate files on servers. The TPPA could mandate policing of technological prevention methods (TPMs), which are designed to stop piracy, but can prevent you from doing legal things - like getting around geographic zoning restrictions on DVDs so you can actually play them.

With New Zealand already prosecuting illegal file sharers under its "three strikes" law, there is concern the the TPPA could be used to clamp down further on copyright infringement, even making internet providers more responsible for policing the net. Yet other clauses point to a reinforcing of patent law, just when many were hoping software patents would be dropped, and the potential for copyright holders to have a say over parallel importing of their works.

Such is the concern around the TPPA, that respected not-for-profit, internetNZ, has made opposing it one of its key policy planks, running the "Fair Deal" campaign to raise awareness about it.

The TPPA secrecy has bred paranoia. Few outside the negotiations know what shape those intellectual property clauses currently take, but groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation view them as an attempt by the US to introduce, globally, IP protection measures it has failed to get through its own legislature.

"The best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness," Neils Bohr once said. The Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist knew well the value of secrecy - during World War II he was part of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.

But when does secrecy become counter-productive?

We need to trust in our elected officials to do the best thing for the country. But with the growing perception that our diplomats are trading away our liberties for short-term trade gains, the best thing that could come out of the Singapore round is a good deal of transparency.

Peter Griffin is technology columnist for the New Zealand Listener and editor of Sciblogs.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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