Discussion on Intellectual Property Rights ACTA Makes Feelings Run High


The objective of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is to set international standards to combat counterfeiting and intellectual property rights violations. But Europe-wide protests put a stop to the planned agreement.

Have there been such intense differences of opinion since copyright law was first established in the eighteenth century? Did it not seem that intellectual property rights were recognised as being firmly established in Europe? Who would have thought that questions of intellectual property could make people take to the barricades again? For months now, a bare-knuckles debate on intellectual property has been under way in Germany. In the analogue world, intellectual property law achieved broad consensus, but in the digital age, it is coming up against its limits, sometimes painfully. The demands of the Internet generation – for the most part represented by the German Pirate Party, which was founded in 2006, and bloggers, journalists, Attac and the Anonymous movement, are apparently irreconcilable with the fears of culture workers and the cultural industry as a whole.

Mass protests against ACTA

There have been very vocal demands for the “freedom of the Internet” at protests against the planned Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The aim of the participating countries, which include the USA, Canada, the EU countries, South Korea, Japan and Australia, was to establish international standards in combating counterfeiting and violations of intellectual property rights. A noble cause, one might think. But there were mass protests all over Europe. It is estimated that in February 2012, between 150,000 and 200,000 people in 200 European cities took to the streets to protest against ACTA. On 11 February, some 16,000 ACTA opponents demonstrated in Munich alone.

One of the criticisms raised was that the negotiations on ACTA had been largely held to the exclusion of the public. “For nearly four years, 38 countries have been holding secret negotiations, the result of which will affect hundreds of millions of people,” claims the website of the German alliance Stopp ACTA. It goes on to say that existing organisations, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), were not involved in the negotiations. Critics also fear that the Agreement limits fundamental civil rights, for example in that ACTA would force Internet providers to monitor their users. There would also be a risk that Internet users would be criminalised for minor offences.

Civil rights concerns

The Pirate Party and the Attac movement are by no means alone in voicing criticism. In April 2012, for example, the European Data Protection Supervisor expressed great concern about ACTA. The German Informatics Society, too, views ACTA with concern. “ACTA’s provisions should be subjected to critical scrutiny, particularly with regard to essential civil rights such as upholding data protection, informational self-determination, the secrecy of telecommunications and freedom of expression,” says Christoph Leng, the society’s Vice-President. It was also important to critically examine what repercussions it would have on the Internet economy. Providers and users were already suffering from legal uncertainty, which might be exacerbated by ACTA.

Demonstrators’ first partial success

Ultimately, it is probably due to the Europe-wide protests that quite a number of EU countries have postponed indefinitely or suspended their planned ratification of the agreement. Germany was one of the countries that had previously decided to sign the agreement but then did not do so. Even the demand made by the German Content Alliance, an association of the German Booktrade Organisation, the public-service and private broadcasting corporations, the umbrella associations of the music, film and television industries and GEMA, the German royalty-collecting agency, could do nothing to change that.

In July the European Parliament rejected ACTA. Three competent committees of the European Parliament voted against the agreement yet at the end of May. The protesters are celebrating that as a victory. “We are happy that the citizens managed to convince policymakers through their massive protests against this agreement,” declared Sebastian Nerz, Deputy Chairman of Germany’s Pirate Party. “That is a great success and it offers the opportunity to work on intellectual property legislation that can meet the challenges of the future.”

Even if, in the meantime, it seems that sight has been lost of this objective in the heated discussions, it does ultimately unite the interests of all concerned: an intellectual property law that does justice to the demands of the digital age.