What’s In (and Out) of the IP Chapter of the United States, Mexico, Canada Trade Agreement

Yesterday, Canada announced—just in time for the self-imposed deadline by the negotiating parties of September 30— that it would join the trade agreement with the United States and Mexico. This agreement, a renegotiation of NAFTA, which apparently is also being called the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA, includes much more prescriptive provision on intellectual property than what was included in the original NAFTA. The original NAFTA text on intellectual property, written in a different era of trade agreements, does not include language on copyright term or issues covered by the WIPO Internet Treaties (NAFTA was negotiated before the WIPO Copyright Treaty and WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty).

Presumably any deal that Canada agreed to in the renegotiation was going to be more prescriptive, with greater rights for rightholders, than in the original NAFTA. However, it is also worse, at least in some respects, than what Canada, Mexico and the United States—and nine other countries—had agreed to in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) (see analysis of that text here), which the United States withdrew from after Trump became President. (Note: after the United States’ withdrawal from the TPP, the remaining 11 countries in the negotiations—Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam—renegotiated and formed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, which suspended many of the United States’ demands on copyright and other IP provisions).

Here’s a look at what’s in—and out—of the renegotiated IP chapter, as compared to both the original NAFTA text and the TPP text:

Limitations and Exceptions 

Arguably the biggest disappointment in the recently released text is what the IP chapter does not include. The TPP had included language based off a United States proposal from 2012 on limitations and exceptions. The TPP obligated parties to try and achieve balance in their copyright systems. Article 18.66 of the TPP read: 

Each Party shall endeavour to achieve an appropriate balance in its copyright and related rights system, among other things by means of limitations or exceptions that are consistent with Article 18.65 (Limitations and Exceptions), including those for the digital environment, giving due consideration to legitimate purposes such as, but not limited to: criticism; comment; news reporting; teaching, scholarship, research, and other similar purposes; and facilitating access to published works for persons who are blind, visually impaired or otherwise print disabled.

While the language could have been stronger—for example by mandating that parties achieve a balance, rather than merely “endeavor[in]g” to do so, a provision on balanced copyright was seen as a success, recognizing the importance of limitations and exceptions in copyright. When trade agreements or laws only include provisions regarding the rights of rightholders, the rights of users get ignored. It is disappointing that the United States chose not to propose balancing language, but instead included limiting language with respect to limitations and exceptions (requiring parties to “confine” limitations and exceptions to the three-step test of 1) certain special cases; 2) that do not conflict with the normal exploitation of the work; and 3) do not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interest of the right holder.). 

Copyright Term

Copyright term is one of the most significant areas with respect to copyright where Canada will be forced to change its law. As noted above, NAFTA did not contain provisions dictating copyright term (and, of course, was negotiated prior to the United States’ own term extension). Canada currently has a copyright term of the life of the author plus fifty years, but with the USMCA text, will need to extend that term to life plus seventy. Perhaps this concession was to be expected since TPP parties also agreed to the term, yet the consequences to the public domain are significant. The United States has seen a moratorium on published works entering the public domain for the last twenty years due to copyright term extension agreed to in 1998. The public domain is critical for the creation of new knowledge and culture and copyright term plays a significant role in closing off the public domain. This term goes well beyond international standards.

Additionally, Canada agreed to further extension of copyright term for corporate works, beyond what had been agreed to in the TPP. While the TPP parties agreed to providing corporate works (works that are not measured on the life of the author) with 70 years of protection, the USMCA text requires 75 years.

Technological Protection Measures

Because NAFTA went into force in 1994, it did not include provisions that have been found in the era after the WIPO Internet Treaties, such as anti-circumvention measures.  The new provisions in USMCA mirror the text on anti-circumvention of several past bilateral trade agreements by the United States. It requires parties to make it an offense to “knowingly, or having reasonable grounds to know” circumvent technological protection measures, or to manufacture or distribute devices primarily designed or are promoted for the purposes of circumvention. This language is highly prescriptive and detailed. It also includes a closed-list set of seven limitations and exceptions to the anti-circumvention measures, plus a provision permitting “additional exceptions or limitations for noninfringing uses of a particular class of works, performances, or phonograms, when an actual or likely adverse impact on those noninfringing uses is demonstrated by substantial evidence in a legislative, regulatory or administrative proceeding in accordance with the Party’s law.” The text also makes circumvention an independent and separate cause of action, apart from any underlying copyright infringement.

On a positive note, the language regarding additional limitations and exceptions is not restricted to a three-year rulemaking cycle, as exists in the United States and several other trade agreements. From the agreed-to text, it appears that parties may provide for permanent limitations and exceptions, if permitted by domestic law.

While similar language regarding making circumvention an independent cause of action existed in the TPP, the TPP provision was potentially mitigated by a helpful footnote reading, “A Party may provide that the obligations described . . .with respect to manufacturing, importation and distribution apply only where such activities are undertaken for sale or rental, or where such activities prejudice the interests of the right holder of the copyright or related right.” Making circumvention a “separate and independent cause of action” is controversial and makes little sense, negatively impacting legitimate and non-infringing circumvention.

It is also disappointing to see the inclusion once more of a closed-list set of limitations and exceptions, mirroring those found in the United States’ copyright law, which have been criticized domestically as being overly-narrow and, in some cases, useless.

Objectives and Principles

The USMCA includes high-level objectives and principles that recognize at least some level of balance and mirrors language found in the TPP. Article 20.A.2, for example, notes that intellectual property protection and enforcement “should contribute to the promotion of technological innovation and to the transfer and dissemination of technology, to the mutual advantage of producers and users of technological knowledge and in a manner conducive to social and economic welfare, and to a balance of rights and obligations.” Similarly, the principles provide that parties may “adopt measures necessary to protection public health and nutrition, and to promote the public interest in sectors of vital importance to their socio-economic and technological development, provided that such measures are consistent with the provisions of this Chapter.”

While this acknowledgement of balance is welcome, the lack of specific provisions regarding balance underscores the fact that the agreement strengthens the rights of rightholders, ratcheting up protections, without providing the same for users.

Remedies Allow for Judicial Discretion

Another welcome inclusion is language on proportionality that was also found in the TPP, requiring parties to “take into account the need for proportionality between the seriousness of the intellectual property infringement, and the applicable remedies and penalties, as well as the interests of third parties.”

ISP Liability

The USMCA language includes prescriptive provisions regarding safe harbors for Internet service providers. Like the TPP, it includes a carve-out to accommodate the Canadian system of notice-and-notice (as opposed to the United States’ notice-and-takedown). As noted on this blog previously, the flexibility to implement notice-and-notice is limited to Canada only because it is restricted to where such a system exists as “the date of agreement in principle” to USMCA.

For additional reading, Michael Geist has a nice summary from a Canadian perspective.