The legislative process has been likened to sausage-making -- too messy for anyone with a delicate stomach to watch. But as became apparent with the way recent revisions to the Copyright Law were handled by the Legislative Yuan (LY), lack of transparency in the lawmaking process can lead to even less appetizing results.
The Executive Yuan last year drafted a reasonable bill, based on spadework done by the Intellectual Property Office of the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA). One of the major objectives was to tighten intellectual property enforcement sufficiently to satisfy the United States government to remove Taiwan from the 301 Watch List. After reaching the LY and passing through an uneventful first reading, the bill was sent to the Economics and Energy Committee (the unit normally responsible for IPR matters) for handling jointly with the Sci-Tech and Information Committee, which had also expressed an interest in the proposed legislation. Both committees held public hearings during the spring.
With just four days remaining before the end of the session (three working days plus the Dragon Boat Festival), the Sci-Tech committee submitted its own version of the new law. Two days later, with hardly any time to study the proposal in detail, representatives from the various caucuses assembled for what is known in the LY as "inter-party negotiations" to hammer out the final bill to go to the floor.
Though not formally recognized under LY rules, these inter-party negotiations have become an integral part of the legislative process in Taiwan. Their advantage is that they can produce a cross-party consensus, paving the way for speedy passage of an otherwise complicated bill. But the disadvantage is that these meetings -- which involve considerable "horse-trading" -- go on entirely behind closed doors, eliminating transparency and therefore accountability.
The bill that finally emerged from the smoke-filled room was a patchwork (one observer counted paragraphs taken from six different versions of the bill). Gone were several important provisions (see Issues on page 14), and inserted -- apparently in an effort to protect students and other non-commercial infringers against harsh punishments -- were some changes that copyright owners fear could hamper enforcement. One wonders how many of the lawmakers who voted in the second and third readings of the bill realized just how much the contents had been altered during the previous few days.
By all accounts, MOEA's Intellectual Property Office made a valuable contribution in explaining market realities to the lawmakers during the inter-party negotiations. Otherwise, the final bill might have contained even more objectionable items. Now all eyes will be on the law enforcement agencies and the courts to see how vigorously the new amendments are implemented. The new law may be less than ideal, but if it is enforced responsibly, Taiwan still has the chance to repair its international reputation as a country that takes intellectual property rights seriously.