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Intellectual property and political rights

Peter Leung

Attempts by rights holders to increase IP protections online have faced stiff opposition often chalked up to misinformation and misunderstandings, but it may be more than that

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.

Bryan MercurioIf 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 false.

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.

Wang Mei-huaThis may 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 dentists 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.


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