The TPP, Sovereignty and Copyright

While TPP – any trade deal – compromises sovereignty it does not mean we cannot respond constructively to unsatisfactory aspects such as those involving intellectual property. 

The stupidest thing said about the TPP deal – thus far – is the claim that it does not reduce New Zealand’s sovereignty. Of course it does. Agreeing to it will mean New Zealand will not be able to do things it currently can do. How important this reduction in sovereignty is is a proper matter for assessment for there are gains as well as losses.

There is a parallel in a marriage. Spin doctors may say that there is no loss of personal sovereignty when a couple  marry. Of course there is, but the couple judge that the advantages of the union exceed this loss (that is, if they are rational – the romantic are not always so). Similarly we need to look at the entire TPP deal and ask, whether its downsides are more than outweighed by its upsides.

There is a difference. A nation has many individuals and interests. It may be that some are better off while some are worse off. Thus beef farmers are going to be enthusiastic about the very favourable gains in beef access while others may see nothing for their interests or even a reduction. The government has to make – presumably has made – a judgement about the overall value of the deal to the nation. It can also take measures to moderate the downsides.

For instance Pharmac is going to have to pay more for some of its drugs. The government has said it will compensate Pharmac for these extra costs. It hasn’t said yet how it will do that. What would be unacceptable is if its healthcare budget was held constant and the Pharmac funding reduced some other part of the public healthcare system – say residential care for the elderly. The additional costs for Pharmac need to come from general taxation.

Can we afford it? The government claims that the deal is worth (eventually) $2.5b or so a year. If so, around about $1b a year will end up as additional tax revenue. The government should put its money where its mouth is and use some of that revenue to fund the additional costs to Pharmac and to offset other downsides.

Sometimes it will have to be imaginative to moderate the disadvantages. I am particularly cross over the extension of copyright from 50 to 70 years after death. Copyright is an interesting area because initially it was hard for an economist to justify it. The argument goes like this.

Information is a pure ‘public good’ in the technical sense that it is both ‘non-excludable’ and ‘non-rivalrous’; individuals cannot be effectively excluded from its use while use by one individual does not reduce availability to others. That you read a novel does not prevent anyone else reading it (although a book – the platform for the expression of the information – is not a public good). Note that the economist’s term ‘public good’ is quite different from the casual public use which uses it to mean a benefit to the public.

It is easy to show that in the ideal economy a pure public good should have a zero price. One should pay for the artefact of the book but not for the information it contains. That would mean no royalties for authors who provide the information. But, the argument goes on, information can be costly to produce so there needs to be a market incentive to produce it. (Some of our great writers have been driven by the commercial desire to earn an income; notably Dickens when copyright laws were much weaker.) So economists see the purpose of copyright as an incentive to produce new information.

Does extending copyright to 70 years after death make sense? How many authors are mindful that their works of genius will be of benefit to their great-great-grandchildren whom they will never meet? Did the announcement of the twenty-year extension result in any writers getting onto writing that novel which previously they had not bothered with? (I don’t even agree with 50 years. There is a view, including among some prominent American economists, that the period should be no greater than 20 years after death; I think that is to deal with publisher stocks at the time of the demise.)

Apparently New Zealand was opposed to the extension to 70 years, but Japan and the US already have domestically legislated it as a result of corporate pressures and they insisted. Our negotiators had to give in, in exchange for other benefits (that beef access is really valuable), although we got some phasing in of the extension.

So if we think the TPP deal is to our advantage we are going to have to adopt the 70 years. But we can adapt policies to improve access to free information. Here is the beginnings of a list:

* the government should stop privatising the information it holds; yes it has sold-off some valuable data bases and their owners are charging like wounded bulls for their use;

* the government should direct the agencies which manage its (publicly owned) data bases to stop profiting from them. They may charge for the costs of releasing the information, but only those costs. This would require some financial compensation to the agencies who may well be reluctantly charging but need the cash because of government meanness;

* the government should set up a fund to purchase private data bases putting them in the free public domain;

* the digitisation project – placing public records in the digital domain – needs more funding.

These do not directly address the extension of the copyright period. What I should like to see are legislated provisions which enable holders of a copyright to transfer their rights to a ‘creative commons’. (They might do so on death or at some other time of their choice.) It is already possible for an individual to do this by an individual contract. What is needed is a simple and standard way to do this.

There is a private ‘copyleft’ movement. An important advocate organisation is the Creative Commons ‘which seeks to support the building of a richer public domain by providing an alternative to the automatic "all rights reserved" copyright,’ As far as I know, no country has taken up their challenge. Perhaps New Zealand could be the first. 

That I’m afraid, will not undermine the greed of the corporations but it would offset a bit of it. It would demonstrate that while New Zealand may lose some sovereignty from the TPP deal, it can still use what is left (and the financial benefits from it) to enhance the human condition.