Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Tech firms fear trade deal loss of freedom

Catalyst IT director Don Christie.  Photo / Mark Mitchell
Catalyst IT director Don Christie. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The New Zealand digital industry wants the Government to pay as much attention to its economic interests in the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations as it does to the agricultural sector.

Don Christie of IT company Catalyst is among those who have pitched a case to the negotiating countries.

His aim is to avoid having the trade deal strengthen patent rights in the IT industry for fear of stifling innovation and increasing the legal risk of doing business on the internet.

The IT sector is one of the most productive in New Zealand, he told the Herald.

"It's one of those sectors that politicians keep paying lip service to and saying that's where our future is - it's all the weightless economy. But when the chips are down, it's weighty lumps of butter and meat that count more."

Mr Christie said he favoured globalisation and knew the damage done by agricultural subsidies in Japan, the United States and Canada, and Europe.

"This isn't an us-and-them scenario. I think New Zealand should be looking for a good deal for all sectors."

The latest round of talks, the 13th, is winding up in San Diego. Last year, Mr Christie and others from the IT sector took their case to the talks in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where they hosted a lunch and aired their concerns to about 60 officials from all negotiating nations.

He did the same thing in Melbourne with speakers from an industry alliance including US organisations.

"These guys are getting very heavily lobbied by the US and very heavily lobbied by the US entertainment industry who seem to have a seat at the table through the US [Trade Representative]."

Catalyst is a New Zealand company with 140 staff and offices in Sydney, Brisbane, and Brighton in the UK. It specialises in open-source software, the kind that allows users to change and improve software and sometimes distribute it. Mr Christie spoke in Vietnam on behalf of NZ Rise, an umbrella group for New Zealand IT companies, not just open-source.

"We want a treaty that allows new Microsofts to stand on others' shoulders, not one that forces us to keep paying the old Microsoft," he said.

The intellectual property chapter that the US put forward considerably extended the rights IP holders had.

"There's no balancing rights of consumers and businesses like our own that are involved very much in innovation. There's very little to protect us.

"There's basically a whole heap of liability that has landed on the consumer and also on businesses that are into new technologies.

"If you think of what's happening with Kim Dotcom, it's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the Americans are demanding."

The software industry in New Zealand persuaded all political parties to support the exclusion of software from the Patents Bill, which had languished in Parliament for several years.

"One of our suspicions is that one of the reasons it has been languishing despite cross-party support is because of the pressure from the US and in particular because of TPP negotiations."

Up to the mid-90s, software was not generally considered patentable and the innovation that took place in the 1980s and 1990s made it a halcyon period.

"Any sort of compromise still takes us to a situation where there will be less development and more costs to innovation than when the software industry really was hitting its straps."

The 11 countries negotiating the TPP are New Zealand, Singapore, Chile, Brunei, the US, Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico and Canada.

- NZ Herald

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