By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The US government says the Bahamas has gone further than what is required for full World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership in its efforts to protect intellectual properties.
The US Trade Representative’s Office, in its year-end 2015 report on the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act (CBERA), said this nation’s eight-strong package of intellectual property Bills exceeded international safeguards.
The report, which was submitted to the US Congress, said the Bahamas’ entry into rules-based trading regimes had forced it to modernise the protection it affords inventors, entrepreneurs and others who develop unique products.
“The Bahamas has drafted eight separate, pending legislative Bills related to intellectual property rights,” the US Trade Representative’s report said.
“These include a proposal to establish a national intellectual property office and to restructure the current administration of intellectual property.
“As written, the proposed legislation would afford protection of intellectual property that exceeds the requirements of TRIPS.”
TRIPS is short for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), an agreement administered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that sets minimum global standards for copyright protection.
The Bahamas’ bid to become a full WTO member, in addition to its obligations under the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU), are what have driven the intellectual property rights reforms.
Going further than the TRIPS requirements is not necessarily a bad thing for the Bahamas, and could be interpreted as a sign it is willing to ‘go the extra mile’ to bolster investor confidence and protections. Many international observers will likely see it as a positive.
However, the Bahamas also has some unhappy memories of going beyond international standards, especially in the aftermath of its 2000 financial services ‘blacklisting’ and the changes to the International Business Company (IBC) regulatory regime.
Six copyright-related Bills - the Trademarks Bill 2015; the Patents Bill 2015; the Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2015; The Geographical Indications Bill 2015; The Integrated Circuits Bill 2015 and The False Trade Descriptions Bill 2015 - went to the House of Assembly and Senate in September last year.
The reforms will empower the police to search, and confiscate, goods bearing false trademarks and patents.
The Bahamas’ intellectual property rights and copyright regimes have come under intense international criticism in the past, particularly over Cable Bahamas’ use of certain signals, and compensation and actual payments to royalty rights’ holders.
All these issues were subsequently settled, but the US Trade Representative’s report suggests the Bahamas is still subject to complaints from copyright holders.
“US trade industry groups have expressed concerns that commercial radio stations in the Bahamas may broadcast copyrighted music without the payment of royalties,” the report said.
Then, in a seeming reference to the National Insurance Board’s (NIB) equity holding in Cable Bahamas, the report added: “The Government of the Bahamas is a shareholder in, and has issued a license to, a company which was engaged in a dispute related to the broadcast of copyrighted material belonging to US copyright holders. The matter was settled out of court.”
Meanwhile, Baha Mar’s claims that the Government’s winding-up petition against the $3.5 billion project was tantamount to expropriation/nationalisation did not escape the US Trade Representative’s attention.
Any government expropriation/nationalisation of property owned by US citizens is sufficient to disqualify countries from participating in the trade preferences regime created by the CBERA and its associated Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI).
Baha Mar’s principals, the Izmirlian family, are not understood to be US citizens, so there seems little danger that the Bahamas would lose access to trade preferences.
The fact that the situation made the US Trade Representative’s report, though, illustrates the major reputational hit that the Bahamas could have taken in international investor and government circles as a result of Baha Mar’s claims.
“The Bahamian government filed a petition with the Bahamas Supreme Court, which approved the Government’s recommendation to wind-up the affairs of the project by placing the project into provisional liquidation under Bahamian law,” the US Trade Representative’s report said.
“Northshore and Baha Mar have claimed in public statements that the Government’s winding-up petition is tantamount to an expropriation of private property, an allegation that the Bahamian government vehemently denies.”
The report added that the Bahamas was now the “third leading source” of imports entering the US under CBI preferences, having overtaken Jamaica thanks to the polystyrene exports from Freeport-based Polymers International.
“The Bahamas’ share of CBI imports has continued to increase in 2013 and 2014, due principally to the increase of US imports of polystyrene,” the US Trade Representative said.
“Total imports from the Bahamas under CBI tariff preferences in 2013 increased by 8.5 per cent and by 11.7 per cent in 2014.”
The Bahamas, by virtue of its proximity and US dollar peg, also remains the main Caribbean export market for the US economy.
This nation imported $3.163 billion worth of US products in 2014, with $2.205 billion of that sum imported during the first half.
The Bahamas’ year-over-year imports from the US fell, though, by 31.4 per cent in the 2015 first half, dropping to $1.514 billion.
The Bahamas’ total exports to the US were $530.719 million for the 2014 full year.