Patents report turns deaf ear

The United States government is in the midst of its annual campaign of amiable contempt and insult of inconvenient opinions. It has invited US citizens and foreign governments to comment on the April report of copyright and trademark violators around the world. Thailand has until Friday to take up its legal right to write to the US Trade Representative about the issue. It can request an actual hearing on Feb 20. After that, the USTR will issue the report it was always going to issue.

The "Annual Special 301 Report on Intellectual Property (IP) Rights", to name it exactly, is something like the mythical Hotel California. It's simple to get on the list, "but you can never leave".

The USTR describes it as a report on intellectual property enforcement around the globe. In fact, the annual report amounts to little more than the long arm of US big business demanding that the world adopt US copyright laws, word for word.

What the Trade Representative will shut out this week from US citizens and foreign governments is any rational discussion of the 301 process. Named after a section of the US Trade Act of 1974, the 301 Report issued each year is a tedious compilation of how countries from Algeria to Vietnam ignore or refuse to adopt US laws on intellectual property.

When the Thai Commerce Ministry and Trade Representative speak to the USTR officials, it is a dialogue of the deaf. On copyright, patents and trademarks, Washington rates Thailand, Israel and Canada to be exactly equal. Any argument that a country has unique social, cultural or economic problems and strengths different from those of the United States is simply shut out.

This is why last month's notice in the US Federal Register about "public comment and announcement of public hearing" is essentially bogus. Both the written submissions invited this week, and the hearings at the USTR headquarters on Feb 20 will have no effect on the report to be issued at the end of April.

The Trade Representative's office has already decided what will go into that document. It will be about the same as last year's.

Thailand was demoted to the USTR's "dirty dozen" of the world's worst violators in 2007. This ranking had nothing to do with music DVDs, movie videos or pirated software in Pantip Plaza. It was because Thailand had the effrontery to issue a legal "compulsory licence" to strip the patents and make anti-cancer and anti-Aids drugs at affordable prices. Big pharma in the US took a dim view. The USTR called it "a weakening of respect for patents", and placed Thailand on the priority watch list, reserved for the world's worst intellectual property violators.

The sheer bogosity of IP "negotiations" is clear. It is the reason that President Barack Obama has found so little enthusiasm for his Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade.

It is troubling that the USTR refuses to treat seriously its own public hearings and invitations for governments and civil society to comment on its annual report on IP. The Thai government has a duty to try once again to get through to the US Trade Representative on this issue, but there is no sign from Washington that it is listening.