Lebanon first applied to join the World Trade Organization in 1999, but now, a decade later, the country’s accession is still not a done deal — a time lag far longer than with most other past or current applicants.
At WTO meetings on Lebanon’s accession, an often raised issue is the state of intellectual property rights (IPR) in the country. Respect for IPR is a key condition of WTO accession.
The United States Trade Representative (USTR) placed Lebanon on a “watch list” in 1999 and then downgraded Beirut to the critical “Priority Watch List” in 2001 where it remained until 2007. It then upgraded Lebanon back to the watch list in 2008, and in its 2009 annual review, the USTR maintained Lebanon on the watch list.
Other Arab countries on the 2009 watch list include Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Though piracy-related losses incurred in Lebanon by copyright-based industries are estimated to have risen last year, Beirut nevertheless made progress in 2008. For example, concerning the problem of cable piracy, about 80 percent of the approximately 700 pirate operators last year signed up to become legitimate providers.
Yet, as a cursory look around Beirut and the rest of the country will show, there is rampant piracy of books, music, films and software in Lebanon, as well as a growing problem of counterfeit pharmaceutical products on the local market. Though Lebanon was one of the first countries in the region to have IPR laws, many of which have also been updated and improved over the past decade, a main obstacle is that such measures are not properly enforced. Lebanon is a signatory to several international agreements relating to IPR, but is unable to properly implement basic anti-piracy measures.
In 2000, the Lebanese government issued a customs law that prohibits the export, import, and stocking of goods infringing copyright. Punishment imposed by the country’s IPR law includes confiscation of illegal products and closure of stores in violation, but such measures are not taken often enough. Even when they are taken, they do not exact an appropriately tough punishment. For example, it is illogical to impose a $700 penalty on a shop owner who has been caught stocking thousands of illegal copies of dvds worth many times such a derisory amount. This leniency does not deter pirates.
Lebanon’s reputation as a haven for piracy is also partly due to a lack of awareness. The state has a role to play in enforcing intellectual property rights by creating awareness among the Lebanese people on the importance of such measures. It is insufficient to simply enforce the law; people should also be informed about the issues involved. Experts (mainly from Western countries and companies) come to Beirut to address businesses, the general public, the media and information technology companies on the need to respect IPR. Promoting the benefits of using legal software and other IPR goods focuses on awareness and education more than on enforcement; yet, the going is tough in an atmosphere of economic difficulty and lack of respect for authority.
Respecting IPR is a basic condition for joining the WTO. Lebanon acquired observer status at the WTO shortly after passage of the 1999 Copyright Law, but even if WTO admission was not on the table, IPR enforcement in the country would be a boon to the country’s many artists and other innovators. Sectors dependent on intellectual innovation are crucial to the Lebanese economy. Lebanon is among the top Arab countries when it comes to intellectual innovation. Copyright industries in Lebanon account for 4.5 percent of the country’s employment, generating more than half a billion dollars annually from sectors including publishing, music, theater, video, radio, television and software. A proper IPR culture would be good for all of these — as well as help in getting Lebanon admitted to the WTO.
Riad Al Khouri is senior associate consultant at the William Davidson Institute of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor