Vice-like grip of US copyright laws bears down on Australians

When it comes to copyright, the US puts Australia in a Half Nelson

There will be more criminal prosecutions for intellectual property (IP) violations as a result of Australia's Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, according to leading IP academics.

"The changes in principle that the FTA required, and the changes in Australian law, have increased the criminalisation of copyright infringement", said David Vaile of the Cyberlaw and Policy Centre of UNSW.

According to Bill Childs from the University of Technology, faculty of Law, the clamp down on copyright law in Australia derives from "TRIPS [Trade Related Aspects Of Intellectual Property Rights] and the FTA, [which was] driven very much by intellectual property and American lobby groups."

Together with these bilateral arrangements, Australian and US officials are ratcheting up the rhetoric as well as the funding in their home countries to ram home the message that IP crimes will no longer be treated lightly.

Last month the Australian Government set aside $12.4 billion in the Budget to fight IP theft. In the US, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales declared he would hit criminals in their wallets.

Gonzales' Department is pressuring Congress to enact sweeping IP legislation that would increase criminal penalties for copyright infringement. With the FTA now in effect, such activities in the US may have ramifications for Australians.

Vaile believes the "overreach of American power" produced an FTA that was "unbalanced".

"It was a partial harmonisation with only those parts of American law that favoured certain interests," he said.

"The reality is that American law doesn't change; Australian law changes, but specifically it excludes the consumer-friendly parts of American copyright law, namely the doctrine of fair use."

The alignment in IP laws between the two countries, said Childs, enabled an Australian to be extradited to the US for illegally downloading and sharing files over the internet.

The Hew Griffiths case is groundbreaking in that it marks the first time an Australian has ever been extradited to a foreign country for IP crimes.

Blogsite Larvatus Prodeo likens the Griffiths case to alleged terrorist David Hicks as another instance of the Howard Government's acquiescence to the demands of its superpower friend. It notes that the British members of his Drink or Die outfit were charged on home soil.

This case has raised questions, says Vaile, about the nature of jurisdiction with internet piracy crimes. Griffiths has never set foot in the US.

"The changes to Australian copyright law are great victories for US copyright-owning interests but they run the danger of undermining their position by their own success if they push it too far... you may get a situation growing now where the technology potentially is going to bypass these laws and the laws themselves are seen to be too extreme."

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