By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Obama administration has praised the Bahamas for being the only Caribbean nation to make royalties payments to TV programming rights holders in 2013, boosting this nation’s reputation as a “responsible trading” partner.
Ryan Pinder, minister of financial services, replied “excellent, excellent” when told by Tribune Business of the Bahamas’ ‘honourable mention’ in the US Trade Representative’s 2014 ‘Special 301’ report.
The Bahamas again avoided being placed on the US’s Special 301 ‘watchlist’ for alleged weaknesses in its intellectual property rights regime, and was just about the only Caribbean nation to escape being blasted over its treatment of music and TV rights holders.
In a section entitled ‘Caribbean copyright challenges’, the US Trade Representative’s Office criticised the likes of Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, Dominica and the Turks & Caicos Islands for maintaining regimes that allowed their cable and satellite TV broadcasters to avoid compensating TV programmers for using their channels.
And other nations, including Jamaica and Barbados, had not made a single royalties payment to TV programmers in 2013.
The only country exempt from such criticism was the Bahamas, with the US Trade Representative’s report stating: “Rights holders assert that they have not received royalty payments from any company in any country of the region, with the notable exception of payments made in 2013 by the Government of the Bahamas.”
The Bahamas’ efforts to position itself within the US government’s intellectual property rights ‘good graces’ have lasted for more than a decade, and spanned four administrations.
They have gathered pace in the last five to six years, following a meeting at the US Embassy in Nassau that ‘jump started’ negotiations between Cable Bahamas and various TV programming rights holders to achieve commercial agreements. The Bahamas also enacted amendments to its compulsory licensing regime - a long-standing demand of the US and its music/TV industries.
“We have been working hard to be fully compliant with our international obligations with respect to intellectual property, amending our intellectual property laws and being a responsible country in international trade,” Mr Pinder told Tribune Business in response to the US Trade Representative’s report.
“Our government is very proud to be very compliant with international requirements, and demonstrate we’re a country where you can do business comfortably and in accordance with the law.
“It was easily a decade of non-compliance, and we’re proud to put ourselves in a compliant position.”
Intellectual property rights, and a sound regime that enforces their protection, can be a vital ingredient in attracting business and stimulating greater foreign and local investment.
They provide protection to innovators and creators, ensuring rivals cannot steal or ‘pirate’ their ingenuity - a key element when considering locations for cross-border investment.
A sound intellectual property rights regime is one of the areas the Bahamas will be assessed on in the process to accede to full World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership, and issues such as patents, copyrights and trademarks tie into it.
The Bahamas’s ‘honourable mention’ in the 2014 Special 301 report likely relates to the Government’s Copyright Royalties Tribunal making due payments to premium network HBO and other TV programming rights holders.
Mr Pinder confirmed that “the HBO situation has been sorted out”, and that the Government (and Tribunal) were “in the process of finalising the Performing Rights Society (PRS) matter”.
The PRS represents all music rights holders in the Bahamas. Obie Pindling, the Tribunal’s chairman, told Tribune Business earlier this year that an agreement to close the long-running dispute with it had been agreed “in principle”.
Mr Pindling said the Tribunal was only awaiting a ‘deed of release’ from its London-based attorneys before it made the necessary compensation payment.
He added: “We had agreed in principle on the settlement in the third quarter last year, but we’ve just gotten the approval to go ahead and make the payment.”
That approval had come from the Attorney General’s Office, but Mr Pindling declined to reveal the precise dollar amount that will be paid to the PRS and its members from the Bahamas’ Copyright Licensing Fund.
This was because the Tribunal had yet to receive the ‘deed of release’ from the PRS, the last step in concluding the agreement. It is likely, though, to be a multi-million dollar sum. The ‘deed of release’ is intended to release the Tribunal from any further obligations or liabilities to the PRS.
But while the US government may be relatively happy with the Bahamas, it is less so with other Caribbean nations. It said many regional cable TV and radio organisations refused to negotiate royaty rates with music rights holders and their representatives.
Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago were singled out as the “region’s most problematic markets”, with the US government noting rights holders’ complaints over the difficulty of seeking redress through the courts and collecting on any judgments they won.
The Bahamas, meanwhile, is still moving forward with plans to further upgrade its intellectual property rights regime via a seven-strong package of Bills.
Mr Pinder confirmed to Tribune Business that the Bahamas’ main trading partners, both at the WTO and Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) level (the US and Europe), were “very comfortable” with the changes this nation was proposing.
“We have worked with the Attorney General’s Office on the final amendments to the legislation, and are looking to do this in a fully consultative fashion,” Mr Pinder said.
Both MPs and Senators will be briefed on the Bills prior to Parliament to ensure everyone is comfortable with, and understands, their contents.
“They’ve been fully shared with our large trading partners at the EPA and WTO levels,” Mr Pinder told Tribune Business. “They’re very comfortable with it, and they feel we did a very comprehensive job.”
While some had suggested further amendments to the Bills, Mr Pinder said any changes would be “in the national interest of the Bahamas”.
“Not every amendment was accepted, but our trading partners were very comfortable,” Mr Pinder said.
The seven Bills are the Copyright Bill, Trademarks Bill, Patents Bill, Protection of New Plant Varieties Bill, Integrated Circuits Bill, Geographical Indicators Bill, and False Trademark Descriptions Bill.
Weaknesses in the Bahamas’ intellectual property rights regime remain, though. Other US government agencies regularly ‘flag’ the number of counterfeit products sold at locations such as the Straw Market, and roadside vendors of ‘pirated’ DVDs and CDs are often seen at the roadside.