EU deals heavy blow to anti-piracy agreement

The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly Wednesday against a controversial trade agreement designed to combat online piracy, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the effort.

The European Union's (EU) 27 member states rejected participation in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, with 478 members voting against, 165 abstaining and 39 voting in favor.

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The vote is another setback for entertainment and content companies that have been pushing governments around the world to combat copyright theft. That effort floundered in the United States earlier this year when Congress shelved the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). 

The outcome of the EU vote also raises questions abut the ongoing negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes a chapter on intellectual property rights. 

The latest round of TPP talks is under way this week in San Diego. 

The aim of ACTA is to strengthen intellectual property rights globally and crack down on online piracy. But critics argued that agreement was crafted without input from the public and said its stringent copyright measures could hamper future online innovation.

Opponents of ACTA hailed the outcome of the European Parliament’s vote and said it could cause other countries to question whether to ratify the anti-piracy agreement.

“The whole part of the exercise seems moot if a major participant with 27 member countries is absent,” said Rashmi Rangnath, a staff attorney at Public Knowledge. “It’s going to have ramifications for how other countries think about ACTA.”

Rangnath added that U.S. negotiators should take note of the EU’s vote and give the public more of a voice in the TPP negotiations. 

“You have to consider the public’s opinion before you regulate an area the public cares about,” she said. 

Eight countries — including the United States, Australia, Canada, Korea, Japan and New Zealand — signed ACTA this past fall. The EU played a key role in the negotiations of the agreement, but did not sign it. 

The agreement needs six countries to ratify it in order to come into effect. 

Carol Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, expressed disappointment with the vote and noted that ACTA will be more Pacific-focused without the EU’s participation.

“It is unfortunate that there has been so much misrepresentation of ACTA, because its language explicitly preserves free expression and privacy while fighting commercial-scale IP theft,” the official said. “There continues to be a need for international cooperation on these issues.”

Entertainment and content companies had lobbied hard for ACTA, arguing that online piracy is cutting into their bottom lines and hurting job growth.

Supporters of the trade agreement lamented the outcome of the vote and argued that it would be damaging to intellectual property rights in Europe. A coalition of ACTA backers, including the Business Software Alliance and Motion Picture Association of America, said in a joint statement that they are still waiting for the EU Court of Justice to issue its opinion on the agreement. 

“Unfortunately the treaty got off on the wrong foot in the Parliament, and the real and significant merits of the treaty did not prevail,” Anne Bergman-Tahon, director of the Federation of European Publishers, said in the statement.