What's so secret about the ACTA?

On Friday night a mate spruiked on Facebook this video he had edited together by taking footage from a B-grade horror movie and a soundtrack by Queens of the Stone Age:

On Saturday I started thinking about how out of touch copyright is with what people are doing these days. I mean, Australia's copyright laws were way behind people copying their CDs to put on their iPods and now it seems like everyone is making a mash-up of some kind.

The thing is that copyright seems to be getting longer and laws are getting tougher and this effectively turns people like my mate into criminals.

One of the interesting things in WikiLeaks' cables has been the repeated demonstration of the importance attached to intellectual property interests by US diplomats. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is the latest push by the US to get countries around the world to tighten copyright and I've been shocked to see Australia sign up without any sort of debate in parliament.

Basically we're seeing a policy developed by lobby groups go straight past democratic process to get a few steps from becoming law.

It goes further than my mate editing videos, it means Australia will rely on imported intellectual property and will be tied to using it in the way dictated by corporations. Think of Monsanto as having a greater say in your life than your local member of parliament.

Australia signed the ACTA agreement on 1 October 2011. Here are a couple of comments on ACTA from Wikipedia:

Since ACTA is an international treaty, it is an example of policy laundering used to establish and implement legal changes. Policy laundering allows legal provisions to be pushed through via closed negotiations among private members of the executive bodies of the signatories. This method avoids use of public legislation and its judiciary oversight. Once ratified, companies belonging to non-members may be forced to follow the ACTA requirements since they will otherwise fall out of the safe harbor protections. Also, the use of trade incentives and the like to persuade other nations to adopt treaties is a standard approach in international relationships. Additional signatories would have to accept ACTA's terms without much scope for negotiation...

Newspapers reported that the draft agreement would empower security officials at airports and other international borders to conduct random ex officio searches of laptops, MP3 players, and cellular phones for illegally downloaded or "ripped" music and movies. Travellers with infringing content would be subject to a fine and may have their devices confiscated or destroyed.

While Australia rolled over for the US, Europeans have shown more spine:

Kader Arif, European rapporteur for ACTA, subsequently resigned from his position on 26 January 2012 saying "I want to send a strong signal and alert the public opinion about this unacceptable situation. I will not take part in this masquerade."

On 3 February 2012, Poland announced it halted the ratification process as it "had made insufficient consultations before signing the agreement in late January, and it was necessary to ensure it was entirely safe for Polish citizens."

I'll try to leave aside my usual complaints about copyright but it's worth reflecting on the massive increases in copyright extensions that have been made in recent decades. Copyright now extends about a lifetime after the death of the author, so you can hardly justify the protection of creative works as being for the benefit of the creator. Laws are meant to reflect public opinion and, as mentioned, I think copyright laws don't reflect how the public use copyrighted material.

Copyright rant aside, it's still a shock to see the way lobbying shapes political processes. I believe it's even more worrisome in the light of recent protests against the Murray Darling Basin Authority's draft plans. These will impact greatly upon the cost of food in Australia as well as future food security and they can be linked to signing the Ramsar treaty and other international agreements.

ACTA might seem like a small matter and the trade minister might say there's no requirement to change domestic laws but the truth is that these treaties are the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to influence upon Australian laws and lives.

In the US, ACTA was dubbed an "executive agreement" rather than a "treaty," which allowed negotiators to skip the ordinary Senate ratification process. If ACTA becomes a binding part of international law, it will create a precedent for future treaties that avoid basic principles of transparency and democratic accountability.