Debate rages over WTO's Antigua ruling


The World Trade Organization's ruling on the online gambling case between Antigua and Barbuda and the United States has caused quite a bit of debate, but not because of the $21 million per year penalty the WTO imposed on the United States. It's the clearance Antigua received to suspend intellectual property rights that has officials talking.

Last week Jorgen Blomqvist, World Intellectual Property Organization director of the Copyright Law Division, told the Antigua Sun if Antigua and Barbuda follows through on suspending the intellectual property rights, it would possibly be violating a separate international treaty it is a part of.

Antigua and Barbuda and the United States are both signatories of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which was created to protect intellectual property rights.

Blomqvist questioned the presumption that the WTO ruling would legitimize the suspension of U.S. intellectual property rights and supersede the Berne Convention agreement.

He pointed out to the Antigua Sun there are several treaties that deal with intellectual property, and while a suspension of intellectual property protections might be permitted by the WTO, it would not be permitted by other established international conventions.

Antigua Minister of Finance and the Economy Dr. Errol Cort responded to Blomqvist's views this week in the Antigua Sun, rejecting the idea the nation would be in violation of another key international copyright treaty if it moves forward with imposing sanctions on the United States for its online gambling ban.

Admitting he hasn't had the opportunity to research the matter thoroughly, Cort told the Sun, "I would have a big difficulty accepting what is being suggested, because if that is so, it puts a nonsense to the whole World Trade Organization and the rulings and sanctions. It just brings the whole thing into disrepute, so I don't accept that."

He went on to say that he believed rulings of the WTO would have to be viewed in the context of an agreement to suspend these treaty obligations and to give supremacy to the ruling of the WTO.

A professor of international law at Florida State University backs up Cort's point of view in the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development's weekly trade digest, Bridges.

Professor Frederick Abbott told Bridges that participants in WTO disputes often have supplementary treaty obligations that overlap with WTO commitments. The theory that a member is legally precluded from exercising rights under the Dispute Settlement Understanding because of the supplementary overlapping treaties, if true, would undermine the effective operation of WTP dispute settlement.

"The obligation to accept the WTO decision means that the rights of the United States under the Berne Convention are not being infringed because the United States has legally accepted the withdrawal of Berne concessions (or obligations) by Antigua," Abott said.

That same obligation also means that the United States cannot assert a breach of the Berne Convention by Antigua, he said.

If Antigua follows through on suspending intellectual property rights, there isn't much precedent for it to follow. While Ecuador is the only other country to receive permission to do so, it never went through with suspending European Union patents and copyrights.

Antigua and Barbuda is also still hoping to avoid having to come to that pass. Cort led a delegation to Washington D.C. last week to meet with U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Susan Schwab to talk about the online gambling issue.

He reiterated to the Antigua Sun that the nation isn't interested in entering a retaliatory fight with the United States and still hopes to settle the matter amicably.

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