January 29, 2013

Antigua, your copyright haven


Imagine a paradise where you can download any book, song or movie up to the value of $21 million. Maybe you’d like to start your own search engine, borrowing the Google algorithm. Well, try Antigua (population: 90,000), where via a file-sharing website, residents may soon be able to take just about any piece of US intellectual property that they want to and not pay anything for it.

Jacob Goldstein at NPR reports that as the result of a trade dispute brought to the World Trade Organisation, whereby Antigua alleged that the US was unfairly protecting their domestic casinos in violation of free trade rules, to the detriment of Antigua’s online gaming sites, Antigua has won the right to use any US intellectual property without paying for it.

Says Goldstein,

“Antigua won the case. Typically, when a country wins a case at the WTO, it wins the right to, say, put a tariff on goods from the losing country. But Antigua is so small that tariffs wouldn’t have any noticeable effect on the U.S. economy. So Antigua took another route: It asked the WTO to recover damages in the form of intellectual property, and the WTO said yes. If this seems likely to cause harm to innocents who had nothing to do with the fight over online casinos, that’s the whole point.

According to Brendan Sasso at The Hill, the WTO approved Antigua’s request to set up a website to specifically sell materials that infringe US copyright.

He also writes that per the WTO, Antigua can collect only about $21 million a year in damages, in other words, take $21 million worth of US intellectual property a year. If this sounds slightly crazy, that’s because it is (and demonstrates just how weird free trade rules are), and because Antigua is using the ruling as a bargaining tool.

“In fact, [the lawyer representing Antigua] Mark Mendel says, Antigua really doesn’t want to do this at all. What it wants is to cut some kind of deal directly with the U.S. that would revive the country’s online gambling industry, or help create some other industry in its place.”

At The Hill, Mendel also said,

“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.”

So that’s the real message of this kerfuffle, I suppose. But for the moment it’s nice to think that there’s a tropical paradise where I can publish every Stephen King book and no one can stop me.



Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.