Sydney Morning Herald
Free trade, the new con trick
By Graeme Philipson
7 June 2005
It is two years since the US and Australia signed a so-called free trade agreement, and it is nearly 60 years since George Orwell introduced the concept of "newspeak", which describes how politicians often subvert language to make it mean the opposite of what it says.
"US-Australia free-trade agreement" is a perfect example. If this agreement were truly about free trade we would not need a 500-page document outlining exclusions, clarifications and timeframes.
There has been a lot of publicity about some of Australia’s non-subsidised agricultural products, such as sugar, being prohibited from the subsidised US market, or about the Americans’ attempts to subject our pharmaceutical benefits scheme to their own drug company-friendly pricing structures. There has been much less comment on the provisions the FTA makes for copyright and the protection of so-called "intellectual property" (IP).
The US is a net exporter of IP and Australia a net importer. The US will use the IP provisions of the free trade act to impose its views and its laws on Australia, where IP laws are a little less draconian.
I have often written about how technology is making the concepts of IP and copyright irrelevant. My comments attract protest from those who benefit from the current set-up. These selfish troglodytes win a few battles, because they have lots of money. But they will lose the war, because ultimately it is impossible to legislate against technology. The so-called free trade agreement is a little victory for them, imposing on Australians many of the same restrictions on the free flow of information that the copyright Nazis have imposed on the US.
One of these is longer copyright protection. When copyright laws were first invented, copyright was granted for 14 years. Over the course of the 20th century this period was extended to 50 years after a writer’s death. In 1998 the US Congress extended the period to 70 years at the instigation of the music and publishing industries.
That’s just one example of copyright being used to protect the monopolistic income streams of the industry, rather than the interests of the artist or consumer. The adverse effects will be felt in any industry that relies on the free flow of information. This, of course, includes the software industry, which relies on sharingknowledge to ensure progress.
In the US there is a whole industry built around suing software developers for copyright and patent infringement, and in using the legal system to suit the requirements of the rich and powerful. We’ve seen evidence of this in recent attempts by US computer companies to bully the CSIRO into giving up the rights for wireless communications technology.
Now, in an ideal world, I would argue that software should be freely available to all. That is what will eventually happen, as the open-source software movement recognises. The CSIRO case shows up the hypocrisy of the US software industry. IP is fine when US interests are protected but, when others hold the rights, IP is anathema.
Intellectual property is a very difficult, even an absurd, concept. Because it does not involve physical objects, and because in the digital age it is possible to infinitely replicate the artistic talent that has gone into its creation, you can’t effectively police ownership of ideas.
Instead of a system that protects the originators of a work - be it a book, a song, a film, or a piece of software - we have a system that enables the strong to edge out the weak, and that ultimately stifles creativity rather than fosters it.
I hold the unfashionable view that trade should indeed be totally free. That includes the trade in human beings and the work they do. In other words, totally unrestricted immigration by anybody to anywhere. It’s one world. I believe we should have a free trade agreement with every country on earth. I think a free trade agreement with the US would be a good idea. But even the previous restrictions would be better than the self-serving lies, the bullying, and the hypocrisy we are being dished up.