Legal Piracy? Antigua Gets OK to Start Selling Copies of US Hit Movies, Songs

Article excerpt

Antigua and Barbuda doesnt normally rank among threats to United States interests. The twin-island nations population of 100,000 rivals that of Flint, Mich., and its $1 billion economy is about as much as New York City is spending to make infrastructure fixes like repairing bridges and filling potholes.

Yet, when it comes to trade negotiations, the eastern Caribbean country is playing tough.

In what would be a first, the Antiguan government is threatening to suspend the intellectual property rights that protect the US music and film industries. It could then establish a website and sell hit songs and Hollywood blockbusters without paying royalties legally.

This week, the World Trade Organization said Antigua had the right to take the unprecedented step in an effort to force the US to abide by a previous trade ruling. The two countries have been locked in a trade dispute for the past decade since the US prohibited the use of offshore Internet gambling sites.

The US laws in question placed bans on bet-making across borders by way of the Internet. Those laws, which had disastrous effects on the Antiguan economy, violated trade rules, the WTO ruled.

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The Antiguan government refuses to reveal the details of its retaliatory plan. Whatever the government does, we are not dealing with piracy or [intellectual property] theft, says Colin Murdoch, Antiguas ambassador at large. People close to the plan have long said the country intends to launch a website.

In various decisions handed down during the past 10 years, the WTO has consistently sided with Antigua. Yet, negotiators have failed to come to an agreement.

Now, Antigua is considering what it says is its only remaining option: going after popular films and music.

A bargaining chip?

An unlicensed Antiguan website might not be the boon to consumers that it seems.

US officials could still prosecute individuals for downloading songs illegally. Whats more, the Antiguan government would be limited to $21 million per year in sales to recuperate the money its economy lost when the gaming industry collapsed, according to the WTO decision.

The government says it has lost much more, placing the industry at $3.4 billion annually, according to what it says are independent estimates.

The US has lost at least two other trade rulings in which foreign countries have been allowed to suspend intellectual property rights. But those countries never did so.

I would be surprised if [Antigua] actually incorporates a website. That would be really serious, says Andrew Sellars, a fellow at Harvard Universitys Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Mr. Sellars believes that Antigua is trying to bring the US back to the table. The countries, otherwise close allies, have exchanged barbs over the issue.

Ngenke Harmon, a spokeswoman for the US Trade Representative, says that government-authorized piracy would undermine chances for a settlement. …