Thursday, 23 February 2012

ACTA referred to the European Court of Justice

The Commission has decided to refer the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement to the ECJ to assess its compatibility with EU law, including the fundamental rights guaranteed under EU law. Commissioner Karel de Gucht said:

"We are planning to ask Europe’s highest court to assess whether ACTA is incompatible - in any way - with the EU's fundamental rights and freedoms, such as freedom of expression and information or data protection and the right to property in case of intellectual property.

As you are no doubt aware, within the EU institutional process, the European Commission has already passed ACTA to national governments for ratification. The Council has adopted ACTA unanimously in December and authorised Member States to sign it. The Commission has also passed on ACTA to the European Parliament for debate and a future vote.

That said, I believe the European Commission has a responsibility to provide our parliamentary representatives and the public at large with the most detailed and accurate information available. So, a referral will allow for Europe’s top court to independently clarify the legality of this agreement."


However he goes on to say:

"As I have explained before the European Parliament on several occasions, ACTA is an agreement that aims to raise global standards of enforcement of intellectual property rights. These very standards are already enshrined in European law. What counts for us is getting other countries to adopt them so that European companies can defend themselves against blatant rip-offs of their products and works when they do business around the world.

This means that ACTA will not change anything in the European Union, but will matter for the European Union.

[...]

So let me be clear: ACTA will change nothing about how we use the internet and social websites today – since it does not introduce any new rules. ACTA only helps to enforce what is already law today.

ACTA will not censor websites or shut them down; ACTA will not hinder freedom of the internet or freedom of speech.

Let's cut through this fog of uncertainty and put ACTA in the spotlight of our highest independent judicial authority: the European Court of Justice.

This clarity should help support a calm, reasoned, open and democratic discussion on ACTA - whether at the national or at the European level. We will also be in contact with the other European institutions to explain this step and why it would make sense that they make the same move."


It seems odd to subject ACTA to judicial review when its provisions are open to national interpretation in places, while not reviewing the current IPR regime in the EU. After all, if the current regime has already largely introduced the ACTA system domestically, would a negative judgment by the Court result in a major investigation into the existing laws...?

This judicial review is mainly aimed at providing a visible counter to the accusations leveled at the Agreement by the European public. Because of the secret nature of the negotiations and the timing of the SOPA and PIPA legislative battles in the US, the Commission hasn't been able to effectively put its side of the story across, so it's relying on a court judgment to solve this problem. Given the vague nature of some of the provisions and the false accusations that have been flying around, the ECJ's judgment will be able to refute some of these. However this avoids the issue of whether we aren't balancing rights correctly through our intellectual property rights regime. The criticisms of the Treaty aren't just based on fundamental rights.

This balance has been pushed for a long time simply in the direction of ever stronger enforcement in a way that doesn't take into account the the issues raised by the internet age, particularly via the new focus on indirect "economic advantage" as opposed to commercial advantage. There are many uses of media now that are different from both their commercial use and the use of physical goods - from classic commercial activities which do need to be protected. We need to think more about the purpose of IPR and how far we should restrict "indirect economic advantage"; whether or not it should be punished at the same level as commercial advantages, or if different approaches should be used to reflect the social and economic value and impact of the relevant activity. And what about setting damages at the level of the retail price rather than the more proportionate level of the loss suffered?

This isn't a simple, headline grabbing fight over fundamental rights (although it raises some questions over how we want to balance them in practice), but also over the usefulness, proportionality and effectiveness of our IPR laws. I hope throwing out some of the wilder claims about ACTA does not puncture a necessary debate - will the EP measure up?

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