It's still too early to be absolutely sure, but the tide seems to be turning against ACTA - the European anti-piracy agreement. But while this particular battle might be on the turn, the long-term copyright wars are far from over. Ian Scales reports.
The elaborate European political process always makes it hard to work out what's happening, but there appears to be a rising tide of political opinion against the controversial ACTA treaty - especially from liberal politicians who have been closely and recently involved in the tortuous process.
This week, David Martin, the MEP responsible for the European Parliament's report on the agreement (the ACTA rapporteur) has come out strongly against EU ratification, as did the previous rapporteur, Kader Arif, who caused a storm when he resigned in protest at the treaty earlier this year.
In addition, last week The European Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy committee (ITRE) published its 'draft opinion' on ACTA as well and it seemed to be giving a thumbs down, albeit with wriggle room.
If the EU does not ratify the treaty when the issue is expected to come up in June this year (after the European Court of Justice rules on its legality), then the 22 EU member states which have already signed up to the agreement won't be able to enact legislation to enforce its obligations. That outcome looks increasingly likely.
But before the general cheering starts, public interest groups are warning that, like the Terminator (1, 2, 3... etc ) the content industries will be back, probably with a slightly different version of the same old concept.
And they point out, the objections to the treaty voiced by the likes of David Martin, are about means, not ends. Martin supports the idea strengthening copyright law, he just doesn't think the way it's being pursued by will actually work.
For instance, the ITRA committee welcomed the general idea of tackling trade in counterfeited goods but wasn't comfortable with the extra-judicial way enforcement would be pursued under any national legislation flowing from the treaty. This feeling - that a proper 'balance' between individual rights and the right to protect intellectual property is lacking, rather than a conviction that the whole notion of IP in a digital age needed a refresh - is the default setting for most of the European politicians now minded to oppose ACTA.
The content industries have been lobbying, through their various trade bodies, for tougher content 'piracy' laws for about 15 years now. What angers many observers, though, is that much of the lobbying and discussion has been in secret and as a result things like ACTA tend to be sprung on legislatures and cheered on by content industry champions in the hope that the legislation can be rushed through before the broader community works out what's up.
What quickly becomes apparent to many though, is that stringent copyright enforcement results in a clear diminution of freedom of expression online... always. And for network operators and ISPs there is a more fundamental problem. Initiatives like ACTA are all about shifting the cost and reputational burden of enforcement off content owners and onto the supposed distributors, or at least enablers, of the copyright-breaking activity.
So where are we? Even if the European Parliament somehow thwarts ACTA in June, like the Terminator, ACTA 2 will almost surely reconstitute itself and return in a different form.
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