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26th Feb 2017

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The Acta debate - will innovation be stifled?

  • An Acta protest - the controversial treaty has brought people to the streets (Photo: Agnes Lisik)

Opponents of Acta, the controversial anti-counterfeiting treaty up for vote in the European Parliament in July, say, among other things, that it would stifle innovation. Advocates say the exact opposite.

According to the text of the treaty, its sole purpose is to protect the right to intellectual property and, thereby, innovation. People would not make new products if these could easily be copied and distributed without payment.

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“The parties to this agreement,” it says in the preamble, “desire to combat […] the proliferation of counterfeit and pirated goods, [which] undermines legitimate trade and sustainable development of the world economy."

Who could ever be opposed to that?

Fear and loathing

Euro-deputies, SMEs, and the European internet industry, however, have come out against the treaty not for its purpose but for its design, citing legal uncertainties.

Their main concern is the apparent vagueness of the text, open to interpretation, which they fear may make life difficult for internet companies.

“This text puts additional obligations on us,” says Maelle Lelardic, spokesperson for EuroISPA, an association of European internet service providers. “And therefore additional costs.”

Article 27 of the treaty - reviled against more than any other part of the text - commits its signatories to “endeavour to promote cooperative efforts within the business community to effectively address trademark and copyright [...] infringement”.

According to EuroISPA, in a statement together with representatives of the European telecommunications industry, “this would enable implementation of EU-wide cooperation obligations such as an extra-judicial ‘graduated response’ mechanism”.

Acta, they fear, may force them to actively police the internet in search of copyright pirates - and, of their own accord, kick them out if they do not toe the line.

Big vs small

A second argument, says Sebastiano Toffaletti, secretary-general of Pin-SME, an association of European IT SMEs, is that “Acta will benefit the big companies and do the opposite to the small ones”.

The treaty, he says, would enable big companies to threaten the internet service providers with legal action if they refuse to take down a small company’s content that may be in breach of the big company’s copyright.

“Big companies have so many patents,” he says. “They file as many as they can, if only in a defensive way.”

But even the internet giants are not entirely convinced. Jeremy Rollison, spokesman for Edima, an association of digital media companies whose members include Amazon, Google and Nokia, says: “We share some of the concerns [about Acta] relating to the potential impact on the EU liability regime.”

Marietje Schaake, Dutch liberal MEP and one of the parliament’s loudest opponents of Acta, agrees that the treaty would stifle innovation - “absolutely,” she says - but for a different reason.

She says that Europe's copyright system today is fragmented and outdated. “American companies don’t even bother to bring their content onto the EU market.” Acta, she says, would only consolidate the old regime and make it more difficult to reform.

Swedish Pirate MEP Amelia Andersdotter agrees. “While the ambition of ACTA is to strengthen EU industries, it appears to be contrary to the ambition [...] to make Europe the scene for cutting edge internet innovation,” she writes in her draft opinion to be voted on by the parliament’s industry committee.

Be happy

For its part, the European Commission maintains that nobody has anything to worry about.

“There is no provision in Acta that changes the current role of internet service providers, as is often claimed,” says EU trade spokesperson John Clancy.

He says that existing EU legislation “is quite clear regarding the impossibility of imposing general obligations on ISPs to monitor the information they transmit” - something that was confirmed, he says, in a recent ruling by the EU court of justice. “And this will not be modified by Acta.”

In the case of a dispute, he says, it will be up to the European Court of Justice to provide legal interpretation. “This is legal certainty, not uncertainty.”

He says that by protecting the right to intellectual property, Acta will “help protect Europe’s raw material - innovations and ideas.”

BusinessEurope, the largest representation in Brussels of industry in Europe, agrees.

“To the contrary, Acta will boost Europe’s innovation,” says spokesperson Ilias Konteas. He says that the treaty will provide legal clarity to those who export to other Acta signatories - currently a handful of countries aside from the US, Japan, and South Korea.

“Exporters will know what to expect,” he says - something that is especially beneficial to “SMEs that cannot afford to pay for legal advice”.

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As the EU continues to struggle with the effects of the economic crisis, the importance of investing in innovation and research is increasingly been emphasized. But how much money is enough and where should it be spent? EUobserver investigates.

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