International law may soon allow the Caribbean island of Antigua to sell copyrighted movies, TV shows, music, games and software online without paying a penny to studios and other content owners. Antigua today accepted a World Trade Organization decision authorizing it to sell up to $21 million annually in U.S. intellectual property without paying royalties. WTO says the appropriation of U.S. copyrights is justified to compensate for U.S. trade sanctions that crippled the tiny island’s online gambling industry. In a statement to the WTO, Antiguan High Commissioner to the UK Carl Roberts paraphrased Bob Dylan: “[As] an American musician once said, ‘When you have nothing you have nothing to lose'”.
Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Public & Media Affairs Nkenge Harmon tells me via email that any Antigua-aided piracy would hurt chances for a settlement and foreign investments in other Antiguan industries including high-tech. “To be clear, the United States will not tolerate theft of intellectual property and will take whatever steps are most efficient and effective to prevent this from happening.” A representative for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce adds this promise: “Violating international IP obligations would sour the business environment and reduce government revenues in the long term — the biggest losers would be the people of [Antigua]”. The MPAA had no immediate comment.
The WTO’s ruling in the decade-long dispute is more significant as a precedent to justify copyright infringement than it is as a way to compensate Antigua. The country says that it loses about $3.4 billion a year as a result of the effort by the U.S. to block the online gambling sites here; the WTO ruled in 2007 that it was only entitled to $21 million a year. Official plans to launch a website selling downloads of copyrighted movies, media, and software have not been announced but may be in the works. Sources in the trade organizations I’ve spoken to don’t know if Antigua’s bluffing (the nation officially denies that any such “pirate” website is being created) but everyone’s waiting on Antigua’s next move to see how this chess game unfolds.