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Government refuses to publish ACTA documents

The Government has refused to place documents relating to a controversial secret global trade deal on intellectual property rights on the public record. A Government minister said that to do so would damage the UK's international interests.26 Jan 2010

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is a deal being negotiated by the governments of some of the world's biggest economies but has attracted controversy by being kept a secret for over two years.

Critics have claimed that representatives from the world of commerce, including content-owning companies such as record labels and film studios, have been allowed to see documents but that the citizens of represented countries have not.

David Lammy, the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education and intellectual property, has told the House of Commons that he could not publish the papers relating to ACTA.

"As is common practice in trade negotiations, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is taking place in confidence," said Lammy in response to a Parliamentary question. "Disclosure of any documents without the agreement of all our ACTA negotiating partners would damage the United Kingdom's international relations."

"This would harm our ability to protect, promote and secure an outcome in the UK's interest, and the premature release of documents that are not agreed and not fully developed may also have a negative effect on the Government's reputation," he said.

Lammy said that he was not able to publish the documents despite agreeing that there was an argument for doing so.

"Although I am sympathetic to the view that ACTA negotiations should be more transparent and I have instructed my officials to press for more transparency, we are not in a position to place the drafts held by my Department in the Library," he said, referring to the House of Commons library.

ACTA talks have been going on for two years and involve representatives from the governments of Japan and the US as well as from the European Commission.

The negotiations are taking place outside of existing trade negotiation structures such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) or the World Trade Organisation (WTO), whose rules on governance might make the process more transparent.

Lammy claimed that his and others' arguments that the discussions should be more open have had an effect.

"UK officials have consistently argued for more transparency in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement negotiations and in bilateral discussions," he told Parliament. "As a result of our calls, and those of like-minded countries, the negotiating parties agreed to release a summary of the key elements being discussed."

The secrecy has caused outrage amongst digital rights activists, and stories about what is being considered have emerged to fill the information vacuum.

Kim Walker, an intellectual property law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, has said that those stories have not helped the cause of ACTA transparency activists.

Activists have protested at the supposed introduction of measures such as the creation by each country of a 'laundry list' of penalties for copyright infringement and the criminalisation of the production of fake packaging for pirated goods.

Walker said that in many cases, including those two, the measures causing such shock are already in UK copyright legislation. "When they bemoan the lack of transparency in negotiations, ACTA's critics are entirely right. But the exaggerations, while a perfect illustration of why the secrecy is dangerous, do not always help the critics' case," said Walker last year.