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Copyright inquiry could save FTA

The Australian, Canberra

Copyright inquiry could save FTA

By Katharine Murphy

9 November 2004

AN inquiry into computer and television piracy could break the impasse threatening to delay the start of the free trade deal with the US.

The potential breakthrough in the FTA dispute over the enforcement of copyright laws has in recent days been raised in talks between industry and government officials in the hope of getting the deal back on course and operational by January 1.

The development could see the trade deal certified on the basis that the US and Australian industries would win a six-month inquiry into whether Australia’s penalties for computer and television copyright piracy conformed with agreements reached under the free trade agreement.

If the additional consultations fail to resolve the issues, the US industry would then have the option of notifying a dispute, arguing that Australia was in breach of its obligations under the free trade agreement. With negotiations at a delicate stage, Australia’s biggest pay-TV and radio players remain concerned that the Howard Government has failed to implement its obligations agreed in negotiations with the US earlier this year.

"Our concerns remain the enforcement of piracy (laws)," said Debra Richards, executive director of the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association yesterday. "We want the FTA enabling legislation in Australia to reflect the agreements reached in the free trade deal," she said.

The major issues of concern relate to piracy of cable television by home users who gain access to premium pay-TV services without paying their full subscriptions. And they also relate to the piracy of computer software. A recent study found 31 per cent of software was pirated in Australia last year at a cost to the US industry of over $340 million.

But while there is the potential for progress on copyright issues, another dispute involving the pharmaceutical sector remains deadlocked. With their FTA concerns still unresolved, drug manufacturers yesterday publicly warned the Howard Government that domestic research and development required government support.

"Australia must continue to position itself as a competitive, high-technology country in which to do business. Failure to do so will prevent local companies, with home offices overseas, from attracting R&D and manufacturing investment to Australia," said Medicines Australia chief executive Kieran Schneemann yesterday. Mr Schneemann’s comments follow claims from the pharmaceutical industry that Australia’s implementation of the US FTA will discourage domestic R&D by discriminating against patent-holders, such as drug companies.

Last night, a spokesman for Trade Minister Mark Vaile confirmed discussions were continuing to resolve the remaining issues.