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What the Trans-Pacific Partnership means for NZ tech sector

Writing on his organisation’s TechBlog, IITP chief executive Paul Matthews says after a meeting with New Zealand Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiators he feels more positive about what the trade agreement means for our technology sector.

Here are the edited highlights. The quotes are from Paul Matthews, the comments are from me:

We’ve received absolute assurances that nothing in the TPP will impact New Zealand’s current legal and policy position in relation to software patents. Hooray!

Hooray indeed. There is always a danger trade negotiators will cut deals that are good in the short-term for our larger industries but hurt less visible sectors or, in the case of software, an important but fast-growing export industry that has yet to reach its full potential.

There is pressure to increase copyright terms by 20 years, to 70 years after death. Some other copyright changes are currently proposed, but no restriction of copyright exceptions (eg fair use provisions), and parallel importing won’t be affected.

My income depends on copyright. That’s how I get paid as a writer and, most years, I get copyright payments when my work is reused. Copyright feeds my family, pays my mortgage and put my kids through education.

This is not about benefitting authors or their families, it is all about corporations with large copyright portfolios. In many cases the terms were shorter when they first purchased those rights, so this is just a gift from governments and consumers to the rich and powerful.

The good news is that there are no plans to touch fair use provisions and parallel importing.

There could be some significant changes around Technological Protection Measures (TPMs), including criminalising circumvention of TPMs, however circumvention to access legitimate content won’t be criminalised. Global Mode-type services won’t be impacted (if they are legal under NZ law currently, which is still a little grey).

TPMs include things like DVD region codes, encryption and geo-blocking. This is a mixed bag. While it’s understandable companies want to protect investments in intellectual property, DVD region codes are an abomination. They only exist so copyright holders can squeeze more from customers in certain parts of the world, possibly more than is fair. It’s not about protecting rights, it’s about gouging consumers.

As Matthews points out later in his blog post, this is going to hurt groups like blind people who get around TPMs to use text-to-speech converters.

The key here is the extra cost of not getting around TPMs isn’t high at the moment, so we wouldn’t be giving away too much if we concede this point so long as New Zealand gets valuable trade-offs in return. It will be different if prices for protected content leap once this rule change is in place.

Because the legality of Global Mode hasn’t been tested — it’s unlikely it will be tested in the near future —there’s a question mark over what will happen to products that get around geo-blocking.

There won’t be any changes in New Zealand in relation to ISP liability for copyright infringement and TPP won’t require disconnection of copyright infringer’s internet.

On the surface this is good news.

Overall, if the assurances are borne out in the detail and no other fish-hooks found, we’re cautiously optimistic about the impact of TPP on the tech sector. But we’re still pretty grumpy about the secrecy aspects and want to see this changed for future negotiations.

“Grumpy” is putting it mildly. The way this works in New Zealand is that we’re not told what’s in the agreement until we wake up one day and find that it is the law. Large companies with effective government lobbying will have some idea, but it looks like we don’t get a say. That’s not good and it’s not democratic.

Trans-Pacific Partnership not transparent

A number of people have asked me to comment on and off the record on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it’s something I can’t do in any meaningful way without knowing what’s in the agreement.

Cautiously optimistic about the TPP’s effect on New Zealand’s technology sector sounds about right. If what the negotiators have told him is correct, it doesn’t look as if there will be much harm done and we may get benefits from better market access elsewhere.

Trade deals are always about compromises. For the big countries the calculus is: “do we get at least as much back from the deal as we have to give away?”.

Little countries have less negotiating clout. Rightly or wrongly it seems New Zealand’s leaders feel we need to be inside the club, so long as the price isn’t too high.

Because trade isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game, a well-formulated trade agreement can mean everyone is a winner. At least at the country level. This often leaves many losers on a sector by sector.

If the negotiators were straight-speaking, then it looks as if New Zealand’s tech sector isn’t going to be a loser.