EU-US food fight hampers ACTA talks

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A long-running battle over the right to use European place names, like Parma or Roquefort, for some of the world's most popular foods and beverages looks to be the toughest remaining issue in international trade talks aimed at reducing copyright and trademark theft.

The 27-nations of the European Union want the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) to cover "geographical indicators," which are names for food and alcoholic products drawn from a particular location, such Champagne or Cognac, both in France.

But US business groups worry that the EU demand would mean American products as commonplace as Kraft parmesan cheese could potentially be treated as illegal items under the pact and subject to seizure by customs officials.

"Yes, that is a possible concern," said Nefeterius McPherson, a spokeswoman for the US Trade Representative's office, which is hosting the 10th round of talks this week on the proposed pact.

Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand and Switzerland also are taking part in the talks, which US President Barack Obama has heralded as a key element of the US strategy for fighting global trade in fake goods. Trade in such goods is estimated to be worth more than 160 billion euros a year.

The US movie, music, software and other copyright-based industries calculate that they lose more than 13 billion euros in sales each year from pirated versions of their products sold around the world.

Last month, after the ninth round of ACTA negotiations, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht complained that other countries were unwilling to include designs or geographical indicators within the scope of the pact and warned that was something the EU must have.

The EU has also pressed in the nine-year-old Doha round of world trade talks for tougher protections for geographical indicators, against stiff resistance from Washington.

The United States recognises geographical indicators that have been trademarked, but not the full gamut of food and beverage names the EU wants to protect.

A key feature of ACTA would mandate that customs officials have "ex officio" authority to seize counterfeit goods without a request from the rights holders or a court order.

The EU wants that to apply to geographical indicators as well, creating concern among US businesses that legitimate American products could be caught in another ACTA member's customs net.

Deputy US Trade Representative Miriam Sapiro stressed the points of agreement among the 37 participating countries on Monday at the start of this week's talks.

"All of the governments in the room today are here because we share a commitment to effective enforcement of intellectual property rights […] And we share the persistence to complete this effort," Sapiro said.

In that vein, USTR spokeswoman McPherson said the United States believes differences about the scope of the agreement "are resolvable" even though the talks won't finish this week and an 11th round is already set for September in Japan.

The potential for the talks to drag on worries some business groups, which hope ACTA will protect US jobs and profits by improving cooperation and coordination among member countries on enforcing intellectual property rights.

"We hope the negotiators will quickly be able to resolve all outstanding issues – including those related to the scope of the agreement – so that they can move toward the implementation phase of this important agreement," said Rob Calia, senior director of the US Chamber of Commerce's anti-counterfeiting and piracy programme.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which began in Geneva two years ago, is a plurilateral trade agreement to establish international standards on intellectual property rights.

According to former trade negotiators, countries attempted to clinch an agreement under the banner of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), but as members could not agree, like-minded nations formed ACTA.

In March, the European Parliament defied the EU executive on 10 March, casting a vote against an agreement between the EU, the US and other major powers on combating online piracy and threatening to take legal action at the European Court of Justice (EURACTIV 10/03/2010). 

An overwhelming majority of MEPs (663 in favour and 13 against) today voted a resolution criticising the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), arguing that it flouts agreed EU laws on piracy online.

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