Picture: 123RF/MAXIM ZARYA
Picture: 123RF/MAXIM ZARYA

The DA is calling on parliament to urgently debate the decision by the US government to review SA’s preferential access to its markets over concerns that the Copyright Amendment Bill will threaten intellectual property (IP) rights if passed into law in its current form.

In the event that the Trump administration decides to suspend SA from the trade preference programme, conservative estimates suggest that at least R12bn of the country’s exports could lose access to key US markets.

Parliament recently approved the bill, which is now waiting for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s signature before becoming law. The DA and other groups, including those representing artists and content producers, have been calling on Ramaphosa to send the bill back to parliament.

The bill proposes changing the country’s copyright regime, which includes the introduction of the “fair-use principle” which, in effect, allows for the free use of copyrighted content.

The fair-use framework included in the rules, which gives individuals and companies numerous avenues to circumvent copyright protections and republish content, follows the example set by the US. However, unlike SA’s courts, those in the US can award hefty statutory punitive damages in copyright-infringement cases, opponents of the bill say. In SA, an offender would simply have to stop re-using the content and would only have to pay standard royalties.

DA MP and trade and industry spokesperson Dean Macpherson said he has written to National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise requesting an urgent debate of “national importance” to discuss the current review by the US government of SA’s generalised system of preference (GSP) eligibility, due to the “unwillingness of Ramaphosa to send the fatally flawed bill back to parliament”.

“On June 12 2019, we wrote to the president requesting that he send the bill back to the portfolio committee on trade and industry for amendments and further consideration,” Macpherson said. “We warned then, should the president sign the bill in its current form, it will lead to a jobs bloodbath and will cost the economy approximately R12bn in exports to the US following threats to institute a review on SA’s eligibility to partake in the US GSP. To date, he has ignored our letter and failed to respond.” 

Preferential trade status

The International Intellectual Property Association (IIPA) — which represents US companies that produce copyright-protected material, including computer software, films, TV programmes, music, books, and journals (electronic and print media) — is objecting to the bill because of the risk it poses to US IP rights. As a retaliatory measure, the association has been lobbying the US government to withdraw SA’s preferential trade status.

In October, the office of the US trade representative announced that US President Donald Trump is opening new GSP eligibility reviews for two countries: SA, based on IP protection and enforcement concerns; and Azerbaijan, based on worker rights concerns.

Macpherson said the bill has now sat on Ramaphosa’s desk for more than six months, creating uncertainty in the creative industry, with the IIPA successfully lobbying the US government to reconsider SA’s preferential trade access, thereby threatening billions of rand in exports as well as jobs.

“This also could not come at a worse time in the same week as Ramaphosa’s investment conference where we should be attracting investment, not losing it. If the president is unwilling to show the US that we take their concerns seriously, then parliament must step in and do so.”

phakathib@businesslive.co.za