The Trans Pacific Partnership, Hurrah

(with apolgies to Harry Harrison)

There’s good news and bad in the leaked Trans Pacific Partnership IP chapter.

As you may know, the TPP negotiations are not only being conducted in secret, but very few people beyond the negotiating team are allowed to see the various chapters. The IP chapter in particular has come under a lot of flak for having major input from big-name US corporations but which lawmakers around the world are unable to read in detail.

Thanks must surely go, in that case, to Wikileaks for publishing what appears to be a legitimate copy of the text. There’s a story on it in the New Zealand Herald, which is listed as a partner of Wikileaks on this story. Wired UK also has a story, because while the UK isn’t part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, its embroiled in a follow-up free trade agreement that is known as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) which kicked off in January.

First, the good news. New Zealand trade negotiators are, apparently, standing firm against some of the more extreme measures introduced by the US in particular.

The Americans would like to impose restrictions on pharmaceuticals, so as to dampen down our ability to buy generic copies, increase the duration of our copyright term, revisit our newly revisited Patent Bill with a view to making software patentable and generally foisting what Wired calls “some of the worst aspects of US copyright law” on the rest of us.

Take the ability to make temporary copies of files, for example. That’s not allowed. Quite where that leaves the internet, I’m not sure, but I’d suggest it would make devices like iPads, digital projectors and many others almost unable to function.

What about blind or visually impaired readers? Will they still be able to have transient copies of works made so they can access the written world about them? No, is the short answer. Oh yes, there might be a carve out that allows them to do so, but the tools needed to develop newer versions of the software fall into the category of “circumvention tools” and so are illegal. Surely a trade agreement should allow blind people and others ongoing access to information by default, rather than by exception.

New Zealand is standing firm on a lot of this. We lead a relatively large group of countries that are opposed to most of the asinine clauses the US delegation (supported by Australia, Mexico and Singapore mostly) would like to include.

I find it interesting that Australia is in this position, because of course the Aussies signed their own FTA with America some time ago – and if the news reports are anything to go by have received little or no gain for their troubles. Clearly they’re now required to support the US approach on all of this. Perhaps the Americans will allow them to buy some more ground attack aircraft for their defence force as a result.

What does worry me, however, is that the negotiators will only take this so far. When deadlock is reached, it will all be handed over to our politicians to see it through the final stage and that’s where the bad news comes in.

Politicians may or may not opt to give away some of our intellectual property rights in return for a promise of access to US markets for our dairy industry, for example.

On the one hand, that’s great for Fonterra, great for the economy as it stands today and will surely win whoever signs it the next election. Access to the US market has been something of a ‘get out of jail free’ card for politicians since New Zealand began trading in the free markets of the world.

That assumes the US will actually allow New Zealand farmers access to the US market and that’s not going to be terribly easy. A promise of future access, of staged easing of restrictions will mean we, like the Australians before us, will no doubt sit on the sidelines waiting for the next few years while the cost of the transaction to New Zealand is introduced immediately.

The problem is, most of our politicians understand the benefits of dairying to our economy but haven’t the faintest idea about the benefits of the ICT industry, despite the best efforts of Rod Drury to build his billion dollar business from the beach.

They simply don’t get that New Zealand could become a world leader in terms of ICT production on a scale that would dwarf dairying, if only they got in behind the effort with more than the lip service we’ve seen over the past decade or so.

We could end up giving away our future economic prosperity to prop up our current economic model, and that would be very bad news indeed.