Antigua becomes pirate paradise as W.T.O. sails into uncharted waters
Image via PiratesofAntigua.com
Itâ€™s not been the greatest week for strengthening national boundaries in the United States. The row over emission standards erupted into a national dispute that could soon become a full-on bar fight between Arnie and the White House. Meanwhile a huge hole, spanning five states, appeared in the middle of the republic as Lakota Nation officially seceded (edit – it seems AFP exaggerated on this a little) from the U.S.
To top it all off, in a bizarre ruling yesterday the World Trade Organization granted Antigua the right to violate U.S. copyright protections on goods like films, software and music. Pirating American stuff is now legal in Antigua by rule of international law, and by extension, it seems piracy could become a powerful foreign policy tool.
As previously reported, the U.S., Antigua and the W.T.O. all took a big gamble on this case. The U.S. bet its intellectual property rights in order to avoid changing its gambling laws. By backing Antigua the W.T.O. risked upsetting the U.S, its most powerful supporter, and Antigua, as the U.S. trade office said yesterday, now runs the risk of â€˜severely discouraging foreign investmentâ€™ if it exercises its right to piracy.
But the fact that Antigua can now freely distribute $21m worth (how exactly $21m â€œworthâ€ of piracy will be determined is anyoneâ€™s guess – that’s probably only half an Elton John CD by the RIAA’s estimates) of American movies, music and software to the rest of the world may turn out to be a much greater threat to the U.S. than online casinos, especially if The Pirate Bay and co. decide to set up over there.
The W.T.O. ruled that Washington has been illegally blocking foreign online gambling operators from the American market, while allowing domestic companies to operate online betting sites. This completely unrelated paragraph from an Antiguan tour operators website sums up the differences between the U.S. firms and the Antiguan casinos:
â€œThe difference between a pirate and a privateer was that privateers were authorized by the government of their country and did not attack ships from their own country. Pirates harassed and robbed anyone passing by.â€
Unfortunately for the U.S., acting like a pirate is much more acceptable under the W.T.O. than acting like a privateer. The W.T.O was set up by the U.S. and other Western countries to dismantle protectionist policies around the world and expand free trade, which has it pros and cons. The big con for smaller developing nations has long been that free trade can end up hurting businesses, democracy and retarding economic growth. But this creates cheap goods and services for the West, so thatâ€™s the status quo the W.T.O. was designed to promote.
Only now the tables are turning. The pirateâ€™s in Antigua are trying to promote a free market, while the U.S. is pursuing anti-competitive, anti-capitalist measures to protect their domestic interests. International free trade can only happen in theory when everyone agrees to a common set of rules. For those rules to be worth anything, they need to be enforced with equal measure. Of course in reality, that has never been the case. This ruling is a major blow to international trade agreements because it establishes that piracy can be used, as Mark Mendel, a lawyer representing Antigua put it, as â€œa very potent weapon.â€
When democracy and equitable practices are ignored, pirates have stepped in many times before and created systems that work. The U.S., for example, was only able to industrialize so quickly in the first place because it ignored international patent and copyright laws in order to rip off European inventions and designs wholesale (which was fair enough, because the Europeans were just as corrupt at the time). Now developing nations are using piracy in the same way to level the playing field once again. This case may well, as The New York Times puts it, â€œset a precedent for other countries to sue the United States for unfair trade practices, potentially opening the door to electronic piracy and other dubious practices around the world.â€ Uncharted waters indeed…