When the G8 group of nations met last week one of the topics it discussed was intellectual property and the setting up of the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a multinational agreement on combating intellectual property (IP) offences.
A short, vague document leaked last year led digital rights campaigners to warn that ACTA could push for national laws giving border guards the power to search people's property, including computers and MP3 players, for copyright-infringing material.
But a document published by the G8 contains no indication of such a policy, talking instead of ways to bolster "an efficient and well-functioning IP system".
The G8 document discussed the role of customs officials, but it focused on greater information sharing to help track and catch infringers.
"We commit ourselves to strengthening cooperation and coordination among customs and border enforcement administrations through facilitation of information sharing," said the document. "We have identified two principle areas for further progress: the exchange of data among G8 members through appropriate mutual assistance provisions … and the elaboration of a rapid alert system to exchange data on a more informal basis."
The document made clear that information sharing was intended to help in the fight against major infringers who moved large quantities of goods around.
"Bilateral sharing of data related to specific traders will enable G8 members to identify high-risk cargos consisting of counterfeit and pirated goods more effectively," it said. "Mindful that such information sharing requires a legal framework in accordance with the legal constraints posed by the national laws of each G8 member, customs and border enforcement authorities of the G8 will, where appropriate, complete mutual assistance agreements to establish such legal framework for bilateral information exchange."
Reports leading up to the G8 meetings last week claimed that the Agreement was on the verge of being signed, but the G8 nations only plan to have completed negotiations by end of 2008, with implementation taking longer.
Trade agreements like ACTA are usually conducted in secret until the nations involved have agreed the overall thrust of the plan. A previous G8 document appeared last year after it was leaked, prompting fears about what was being negotiated in secret.
The European Commission last year sought member states' permission to negotiate ACTA deals with countries outside of the G8 and World Trade Organisation groupings.
"The fact is that we don't know a great deal about ACTA," said Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons and editor of OUT-LAW.COM. "Implementation could be years away. The documents that have appeared are not as scary as some reports would suggest. There has been speculation that ACTA will lead to airport security guards routinely frisking laptops and iPods for pirated files – but that sounds like scaremongering to me. Until we know the detail, though, it's all just speculation."
What could be potentially more controversial is the document's aim of further harmonising patent law across as many nations as possible. Patent law as it applies to technology and software in particular differs markedly between the US and Europe and between the UK and other parts of the EU.
"Not only does the lack of a harmonized international patent system hinder innovation, it also negatively impacts economic growth and development," the document says. "While discussions on substantive patent law harmonization at the international level have shown some divergences, in light of the ever growing importance of patents (and the corresponding increase in applications) in today’s knowledge based economy, the G8 reaffirms the need to support efforts for the early realization of international patent harmonization."
The document, though, is in many places simply a statement of broad aims. "Innovation is the process by which human ingenuity, enterprise and creativity crystallize to create new value-added and open up new frontiers of knowledge," it says. "It is the fountain in which our hope for future development and progress rests. An efficient and well-functioning IP system is critical for innovation and its activities to flourish."