An anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement being negotiated between the United States, EU and other developed nations, including New Zealand, is still in "bits and pieces" and it may be another six months before it is clear what shape the agreement might take, government officials say.
ACTA is being viewed with suspicion by internet rights advocates, who fear a hawkish approach by the United States — suggested in leaked EU briefing papers — may see countries agree measures that will reduce people's online freedoms and force internet providers to police customers' behaviour.
Government officials gave briefings last week in an effort to allay concerns, claiming there was "a lot of misinformation being spread on blogs" on what ACTA will or won't do. They indicated Acta was very much still a work in progress but was about to get down to brass tacks.
"We have got kind of a working document for some chapters that reflects all the proposals and comments that the various delegations have made, and on other ones we have got competing documents that different parties have put together as alternatives. I don't think it is fair to say there is any single consolidated document," an official said.
"We are getting to the tough end run where we have got all these proposals on the table and either participants have got to start agreeing to those, or agree for them to be withdrawn, if we are going to actually get to an end point."
The vexed issue of protecting intellectual property rights in the digital environment is set to be discussed in depth at the next round of negotiations in Mexico in January, and officials intend to hold public consultations on that issue in February. The New Zealand government will host the following round of ACTA negotiations in Wellington in April.
Officials said the interests of businesses such as Wellington film-maker Weta and the New Zealand music industry were high on their minds.
However, they claim New Zealand negotiators may be keener to represent the interests of consumers of copyrighted material than some participants.
It was too early to say whether proposals now on the table would require changes to New Zealand laws.
It is understood New Zealand is out of step with some ACTA participants in that Customs does not have the power to seize counterfeit imports without a request from rights-holders or to seize infringing exports.
New Zealand's national interest was guiding its stance in the negotiations, officials said. New Zealand was a net importer rather than a net producer of the intellectual property that might be subject to tighter protections, but it might nevertheless be in New Zealand's interests to participate.
"The underlying aim is to create greater certainty for rights-holders here and overseas around the enforcement of intellectual property rights when there is infringement."
What Is Acta?
* An international treaty under negotiation since 2008 and due to be concluded next year.
* Aims to tackle trade in counterfeit goods worth US$250b (1.95 per cent of global trade) in 2007.
* Will not involve "guilt on accusation", a lowering of evidentiary standards or filtering of the internet.
* Round 7 of the negotiations will be held in Mexico in January.
* Round 8 in Wellington in April.
* Public consultations on "enforcement measures in the digital environment" from February 10.
* Government will decide whether to sign Acta once negotiations concluded.
Source: Economic Development Ministry