Last month, the Taiwanese IP Office (TIPO)
announced a proposal to block overseas websites that host
infringing content. Protestors took to the web, calling it the
Great Firewall of Taiwan, the
island’s version of the US’s Stop
Online Piracy Act (SOPA),
wrong for democracy and
contrary to the values of free speech and human rights.
Less than 10 days later, TIPO director-general Wang Mei-hua
(below left) announced that it will scrap
the plan, stating that TIPO "never intended to challenge"
free speech rights.
Some proponents of the plan lamented the reaction,
explaining that it would have merely provided rights holders
with a tool they already have against domestic infringing
sites. Wang deflected questions about whether she felt the
public had overreacted or were misinformed.
If this sounds
familiar, that’s because it is, except for perhaps
Wang’s avoidance of the public reaction issue. US
register of copyrights Maria Pallante
had no such concerns, chiding SOPA protestors for their
"disregard of copyright law" and "apparent confusion". The
Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA) drew even more vigorous
protest, spilling over from the internet into the streets of
Poland and leading to the
governments pulling out of the agreement. Even Hong
Kong’s copyright amendment is stalled due to
heated complaints that the bill
criminalises parodies [free registration required], a claim
that the bill’s proponents of course say is
Supporters of these bills were shocked and dismayed at what
they saw as a fight against irrationality. In
dissecting what went wrong with ACTA, Bryan Mercurio of
Chinese University of Hong Kong (right) said that the
protestors failed to understand that the bill’s
provisions were permissive rather than mandatory. Similarly,
lawyers say that Hong Kong’s copyright bill is
stuck indefinitely, given what they perceive as the
public’s emotional and uninformed response.
Many of these comments about protestors’
misunderstandings are correct, and it certainly
isn’t difficult to find erroneous information
about these bills online. But where does that leave rights
holders? One common thread seems to be these bills, rather than
just dealing with economic or property rights, the public,
rightly or wrongly, have also implicated political rights and
notions of freedom.
seem strange to supporters (Mercurio said that ACTA opponents
seemed to believe that there was a "fundamental right to
infringe"), but the tech-savvy who grew up with the internet
are weaned on horror stories of intellectual property abuse,
from DMCA takedowns used to shut out critics to
who try to force patients to sign away the copyrights to
their reviews. Similarly, the Hong Kong and Taiwan episodes
reflect how freedom of speech serves for many of the protestors
as a pointed distinction from mainland China.
Are these incidents representative of intellectual property
laws as a whole? Of course not. But this is perhaps the reality
that needs to be acknowledged: that intellectual property is,
fairly or not, associated with political freedoms and the right
to communicate. Failure to acknowledge these concerns, even if
they seem misguided, may be necessary.
Finally, it may be also worth noting that while lawyers
operate on facts and precision, the rest of the world is
considerably messier. One only needs to look at the factual
inaccuracies and glossed-over details that permeate and persist
in elections worldwide. While rights holders should be lauded
for working to correct misinformation about intellectual
property laws, simply pointing out that the other side is wrong
may not be enough.