Copyright, Intellectual Property, International Law

Where U.S. Copyrights Go To Die

Antigua & Barbuda 1
United States 0

Have you been holding off on buying your copy of Supertrain: The Complete Series in hopes of downloading it illegally without fear of reprisal? Well, you have a friend in Antigua & Barbuda.

In a Monday decision by the World Trade Organization, Antigua & Barbuda can now legally offer downloads of copyrighted U.S. works, and there’s not a damn thing the U.S. can do about it.

The decision marks the latest chapter in the long-running trade dispute between the U.S. and the tiny Caribbean nation over Antigua’s internet gambling industry. The U.S. banned Antigua’s internet casinos, Antigua took the U.S. to court through the WTO, and Antigua won — and has continued to win — consistently throughout the appeal process.

And now, in what passes for the sentencing phase of the WTO proceedings, Antigua has earned the right to violate the hell out of U.S. copyrights up to the value of $21 million a year.

Does that seem illogical? Welcome to the WTO….

The WTO would like to remind you that she started it.

See, the WTO doesn’t have the power to order sovereign nations to change their laws just because the member state violates the WTO rules. Instead, the WTO authorizes the aggrieved state to break other trade rules to screw the first country to a commensurate degree. For example, if China breaks the anti-dumping rules for tires, the U.S. is allowed to unfairly tax Chinese steel to make up the difference.

To recap, the WTO governs international trade like an incredibly bad parent. “Because you pulled Sally’s hair, she gets a free shot to kick you in the nuts. Justice!!!”

I rarely feel sympathy for the MPAA and RIAA, but why exactly do they deserve to be screwed because a noxious cocktail of puritanical officials and gambling industry lobbyists have captured federal lawmaking and shut down online gambling? American copyright holders have been dragged into the middle of a brawl over someone else’s parking space, and will lose millions in revenue through no fault of their own.

So maybe the WTO really says, “Because you pulled Sally’s hair, she gets a free shot to kick your friend from school in the nuts. Justice!!!”

Lobbyists are already pressing their case with sympathetic lawmakers, hoping to cut off Antigua’s aid packages in retaliation. That’s the spirit of free trade!

Now Antigua may not go forward with their clever plan to start selling intellectual property wholesale. They have threatened this before and backed off. At the end of the day, all Antigua really wants is a deal:

“The economy of Antigua and Barbuda has been devastated by the United States government’s long campaign to prevent American consumers from gambling online with offshore gaming operators,” Harold Lovell, Antigua’s finance minister, said in a statement. “We once again ask our fellow sovereign nation and WTO member, the United States of America, to act in accordance with the WTO’s decisions in this matter, before we move forward with the implementation of the sanctions authorized this day by the WTO.”

I was living in the Northwest during the great Seattle WTO riots. Many a hippie head was cracked in the name of resisting an institution that they were convinced would legitimize the U.S. running roughshod over the smaller economies of the world. Meanwhile, the proponents of the WTO claimed that it would level the playing field for smaller countries.

If the WTO was really meant to prop up large trading powers, then never underestimate the capacity of an institution to buy its own hype. According to Antigua’s lawyer, Mark Mendel:

“One of the messages we want to get across is that the WTO was sold to smaller countries as a level playing field and a way for them to expand the reach of commerce, subject to a set of rules that apply to everybody. I think more than anything else, this case is about fairness. The WTO is supposed to be fair.”

The U.S., a prominent WTO backer, is not amused by this turn of events. And with good reason. Antigua is not the only country with online casinos seeking access to U.S. bettors. Armed with this precedent, formal complaints could proliferate.

So if your practice revolves around international trade, it might be a good time to get on the phone with Vanuatu.

(hidden for your protection)

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