If there's one country that might have insight into what a post-ACTA future may look like, it's the Republic of Korea. Korea is known as having one of the most advanced networks in the world, but more recently it has also been the recipient of some of the strongest foreign pressure to ramp up its IP laws. Heesob Nam is a member (and former Chair) of IPLeft, a Korean digital rights activist group founded in 1999 to critique the increasingly maximalist IP rights agenda in that country, and research and present alternative policy proposals. He writes of the impact on Korea of ACTA and other international IP agreements.
For Korea, ACTA is the Anti-Commons Trade Agreement
In August 2008, our group, IPLeft, demanded that the Korean government disclose relevant information about its stance on the negotiation of ACTA. The disclosure was denied, as was our appeal. The reason for the denial was unconvincing: the disclosure, we were told, would result in "a harmful effect on a diplomatic relationship with foreign countries and severe damage to considerable national interests".
How does the participation in an international cooperation to combat the trade of "counterfeit and pirated goods" harmfully impact foreign relationships? Which national interests are to be damaged by open and transparent discussion? Unlike its attitude to civic society and the general public, it turned out that the Korean government already provided relevant information to, and sought opinions from, particular business groups from the earliest stages of the negotiation, at least from November 2007.
When it comes to ACTA, transparency and openness became principles that apply only to a small number of business interests. This is why the secrecy of ACTA is so bad: it mirrors a particular perspective that views the system of intellectual property as a means for maximizing commercial profit and which pays little attention to the broader social, cultural and economic implications of the IP system.
This imbalanced and biased approach is infused into the draft texts that we have seen. The draft chapters on civil enforcement, criminal enforcement, and border measures lack procedural justice and fairness. They improperly promote the interests of IP holders to the detriment of the other party in civil, criminal and administrative proceedings.
The provisions contained in the proposed Internet Chapter appear to impose undue obligations on ISPs. The extent to which ISPs are to be liable for copyright infringement by users is a matter of domestic cultural policy, not a trade issue. Careful balancing of interests and fine-tuning are necessary, including factors specific to local culture and environment which cannot be concluded in a closed room occupied by trade negotiators.
More significantly, the liability of ISPs is of great importance not merely for the protection of copyright: it is important for the protection and realization of everyone’s right to take part in cultural life as declared in legally binding international human rights instruments. One of our concerns about ACTA is the risk of undercutting the principle of the rule of law and the possible conflict with human rights, in particular with the right to a fair trial, the right to equality before courts and tribunals, the right to equality of arms, and the right to be presumed innocent. ACTA tries to introduce substantial changes in civil and criminal procedures. But the proposed changes give rise to issues of procedural justice and fairness, jeopardizing Korea’s obligations under the international human rights instruments, e.g., the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and potentially weakening the democratic values recognized in our Constitution.
For instance, pursuant to the US-Japan joint proposal, any provisional measures such as a preliminary injunction may be rendered by judicial authorities without a prior hearing of the alleged infringer. Here, neither "irreparable harm to the right holder" nor "a demonstrable risk of evidence being destroyed" is explicitly required. Even the Customs office may take an ex-officio action to suspend the release of suspected copyright or trademark infringing goods. Moreover, right holders may be awarded a predetermined amount of damages without having a burden to show the amount of damage or even when the amount is greater than actual damage. An even more severe breach of principles of procedural justice is found in a so-called "camcorder provision" under which anyone who attempts to use an audiovisual recording device to make a copy of any part of an audiovisual work in a theater may be criminally punished. This out-of-proportion rule not only produces a direct conflict with the right to be presumed innocent but also undermines the principle of fair use or fair dealing.
National autonomy is vital in order to decide the proper level of local IP protection and enforcement. Korean IP law has undergone substantial revision due to the threat of trade sanctions from both the US and the EU since the early 1980s. This economic coercion has continued for about thirty years, and has led to an emergence of consistent domestic pressure for stronger IP protection.
Interestingly, the strongest advocates for these reforms in Korea are not the IP industries: they are the executive branches in government which claim competance over the administration of patent, trademark, and copyright. To them, stronger IP protection and enforcement is a chance to enhance their position. The unending economic pressure and the heavy reliance of our domestic economy upon exports have produced this environment. The problem is that these state actors are much more influential than other, emerging local businesses, because they possess institutional capacities and resources to promote a maximalist IP regulatory culture.
With this power, these government agencies have introduced new laws in Korea which may well be used to support controversial provisions currently being discussed in Guadalajara, Mexico. Examples include a filtering obligation imposed on certain online service providers, and a "graduated response" rule under which the Minister of Culture can suspend or terminate the Internet account of a repeat infringer or even shut down a website that the repeat infringer is using. Advocates claim that the shutting-down provision is incorporated in the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (and Side Letters) (currently awaiting ratification), and may possibly be pushed by the US in modified form during the ACTA negotiations. If ACTA is concluded with an inspiration of such provisions and applied to Korea under the name of international harmony, our effort to reform the copyright system would be undermined, and opportunities for democratic policy discussion at local level would be lost.
Contrary to the beliefs of ACTA negotiators, stronger, criminal enforcement rules can create unintended consequences among the general public. In Korea, following the introduction of these new laws, reports of criminal copyright infringement skyrocketed from 14,838 to 90,979 between 2005 and 2008. Among these, juveniles victims occupied 24% in 2008, an increase from 1.9% in 2005.
This reported increase, however, does not represent a rapid rise of the unauthorized use of copyrighted material by juveniles. Rather, it shows how criminal sanctions can be misused. Under the Korean Copyright Act, any unauthorized acts of reproduction or distribution of copyrighted works can invoke a criminal liability. This wide coverage of criminal sanction paves the way to abuse or misuse of criminal enforcement. ACTA is no different in this sense. In order to be "willful copyright piracy" under ACTA, an infringing activity needs to be "on a commercial scale". But commercial scale is defined so broadly that it covers activities with "no direct or indirect motivation of financial gain". With this broad definition, the infringement on a commercial scale may include almost every unauthorized use of copyrighted work. So, for instance, those who download a single piece of music may risk criminal penalties. In other words, ACTA opens the door to the global misuse of criminal enforcement rules, beyond even what we've seen in Korea.
Here, criminal sanctions have become a sort of new business model for lawyers acting for copyright holders (mainly music and film industries). They monitor Internet users and send warning letters to suspected individuals threatening a criminal action. In exchange for not taking the criminal action, they ask for a cash settlement. Criminal enforcement procedures provide copyright holders with leverage; using the threat of criminal action as leverage for the settlement negotiation as the initiation of criminal procedure is triggered by a complaint by the right holder. Among the 90,979 complaints in 2008, 56% were settled out of court.
ACTA risks exporting Korea's criminal enforcement regime, while importing the worst of other countries' IP laws. But that's not the only reason to oppose it. A trade agreement that breaches procedural justice, fairness, transparency, and proportionality is not Anti-Counterfeiting: it's Anti-Commons.