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Zookz! Misinterpreting the WTO to Annoy the RIAA

7/15/09 - Tech Dirt - View Source

By Mike Masnick

It's been quite some time since we last heard anything about the fascinating battle between the US and Antigua. It goes back a long time. We first wrote about this issue, nearly a decade ago, when the operators of online casinos in Antigua (where gambling is legal) were pretty pissed off to find out that the US claimed to have regulatory power over their online casino and could ban its use in the US. Antigua protested to the WTO, claiming that this was a violation of free trade agreements between the two countries. In 2004, the WTO agreed with Antigua, saying that because the US allows certain types of gambling, it's a violation of their agreement to ban Antiguan gambling sites. Of course, the US ignored the WTO and Antigua, recognizing that Antigua had little to no power over the US.

A year later, the WTO ruled again in favor of Antigua on this issue, though, amusingly, the US Trade Rep misleadingly claimed that the WTO had changed its mind. It had not. The US simply lied about what the WTO really said and declared victory, when it had actually lost again. The following year? The WTO again asked the US why it wasn't living up to its trade obligations on this point. In 2007, the WTO tried again and was ignored again.

In the midst of all this, a rather amusing and interesting suggestion popped up. In the random online discussions about how Antigua could actually flex its muscles against the US, someone pointed out that the WTO could allow Antigua to ignore US intellectual property, thereby allowing it to set up a cheap online download store. That idea gained traction at an incredibly fast pace, as lawyers jumped on the idea and set the wheels in motion. During that time, the US tried to unilaterally change its trade terms with Antigua to settle the matter, but that didn't get very far. Finally, at the end of 2007, the WTO agreed to letting Antigua ignore US intellectual property, but only to the tune of $21 million. Of course, the US quickly threatened Antigua not to go forward with any plans to violate US IP, but did little to rectify the situation. So last year, Antigua insisted it really (really, really, really!) was going to start ignoring US IP.

Since then? Well, it's been really quiet. Until now.

The LA Times has the story of a site called Zookz (from Carib Media), which claims to be taking advantage of the WTO ruling. It is, in fact, based in Antigua and is offering up unlimited music or movie downloads for $10/month -- or both music and movies for $18. Needless to say, the US government and the entertainment industry are vehemently opposed to Zookz interpretation of the WTO ruling -- especially when it comes to the fact that the Zookz service is apparently available outside of Antigua. Honestly, it seems like both sides are stretching the meaning of the ruling. The US and the entertainment industry basically want to completely ignore the WTO ruling, and interpret it to be entirely meaningless. That makes no sense, of course. The WTO wouldn't allow such sanctions unless there were a way to actually make use of them.

That said, it doesn't seem like the WTO ruling gave random private companies carte blanche to offer up music and movies. In fact, the Zookz interpretation gets even odder, where it interprets the $21 million to mean how much it can make, rather than the value "lost" to the industry. In fact, because of this Zookz claims that if it gets too close to selling $21 million (or if others enter the market, and combined they approach $21 million), they'll just have to start giving music and movies away for free to avoid going over the limit. While the WTO did want to give Antigua a weapon against the US, it's hard to believe that was what it meant. So, while this may be amusing to watch, the likelihood of Zookz lasting very long seems slim, at best.

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