TPP locks in copyright & patent rules, making reform near impossible

30 April 2016

A new draft Productivity Commission report has found that copyright and patent rules agreed to in the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement are costing governments and consumers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It has also called for a reform of our copyright laws for the benefit of consumers.

The PC report has estimated that the Howard government’s decision to agree to US demands and extend monopoly rights for pharmaceutical companies by an extra five years is currently costing Australian consumers and Governments $250 million annually in higher medicine costs.

Similarly, the AUSFTA's extension of copyright terms from 20 years to the life of the author plus 70 years is also probably costing an extra $88 million in fees to overseas rights holders each year.

The report has recommended copyright reform to protect consumers - including tougher laws about patenting, free import of books and “fair use” copyright provisions.

But the report also acknowledges that multilateral and bilateral trade deals are the “primary determinant” of Australia’s IP arrangements, and that “these agreements substantially constrain domestic IP policy flexibility”. 

As The Age’s economics editor Peter Martin observed, when it comes to copyright reform, our hands are tied by trade agreements. He writes:

"What [the Productivity Commission] wanted to do was to wind back Australia's 120 years plus copyright terms. It reckons 15 to 25 years is all that's needed. It says the average commercial life of a book is 1.4 to 5 years. Beyond that, the harm copyright does by locking things up outweighs any conceivable benefit to the authors in extra income. But it couldn't. Australia's trade agreement with the US prevents Australia backsliding, as do the new agreements with Korea and Singapore and the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership. It says the Australian government shouldn't have made the commitments on copyright without first assessing the costs and benefits. It wants Australia to try and unpick those deals, something it acknowledges is next to impossible.”

This is just another example of why we need much greater transparency and scrutiny of our trade agreements during the negotiating process.

It also highlights the need for proper cost-benefit analysis of trade deals before they are signed - something the Coalition government has refused to do for the TPP  despite calls from diverse community groups representing millions of Australians.

As the Productivity Commission recognises, unpicking trade deals that are already in place is extremely difficult. It is much better to ensure proper analyses and scrutiny before these deals come into force.

In the case of the TPP it is not too late - though the deal has been signed, it has yet to be ratified by the Australian government. Its implementing legislation will be voted on in the Australian Parliament after the Federal election.

AFTINET is campaigning for all candidates to make their positions clear on the TPP before the election.

You can ask your candidates to take a stand and vote no to the TPP’s implementing legislation here.

Learn more:

- Peter Martin’s news article in The Age: Productivity Commission calls for free import of books, copyright shake-up (29/04/2016)

- Peter Martin's opinion piece: The Productivity Commission's hands were tied on copyright (29/04/2016)

- The Australian also reported that global pharmaceutical giants are boosting revenues by unnecessarily extending patents in Australia, which is also slowing access to cheaper drugs: Big pharma gaming patents for extra cash: Productivity Commission (29/04/2016).