The U.S. entertainment industry is joining in a last-ditch push to sway wavering Democratic lawmakers to back President Obama's pro-trade agenda, as his hard-fought Pacific Rim trade deal heads to an uncertain end game.
Hollywood and the music industry see the potential for lucrative enhanced-copyright protections in the 12-nation trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
With congressional action nearing on a bill that would clear the way for Obama to win passage of the agreement, snowballing numbers of free-speech groups and Internet activists are stepping up their campaign to foil one of the legislative priorities of Obama's second term.
The TPP is the economic centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy re-balancing toward the fast-growing region. It aims to remove tariffs and other barriers to trade with Japan, Canada, Mexico and eight other countries.
Although the deal is projected to give a boost to U.S. farmers and some manufacturers, the services industry is likely to be the biggest beneficiary, including software and entertainment.
In a letter last month, Christopher J. Dodd, the former senator from Connecticut who heads the Motion Picture Assn. of America, signed on with six other former Democratic National Committee chairs to urge fellow Democrats to support trade-promotion, or fast-track, authority for Obama.
That would strengthen the president's leverage to strike a final TPP accord by requiring Congress to give it only an up-or-down vote without changing the terms. It was Dodd's second letter in two weeks to appeal for the pro-trade measure, calling it a "driver for a stronger middle class."
Opponents, however, are coalescing against fast track in a way that some said is reminiscent of the grass-roots whirlwind that defeated the entertainment industry-backed effort a few years ago to toughen penalties under the Stop Online Piracy Act.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group in San Francisco, said that based on leaked drafts, the trade deal "would have extensive negative ramifications for users' freedom of speech, right to privacy and due process, and hinder people's abilities to innovate."
The TPP, for example, is expected to adopt the U.S. term of 70 years of protection for copyrighted films, music and other works — something that the entertainment industry strongly backs.
Some TPP countries, including Canada, New Zealand and Japan, have shorter terms for certain products. Critics argue that pushing the American standard not only stirs ill will among trading partners but locks in a copyright life span that the U.S. may want to lower at home in the future.
U.S. trade officials wouldn't comment on leaked texts but insisted they were not favoring any industry. They said they are pushing to support an open Internet with free flow of data across borders and that nothing they're proposing would be inconsistent with U.S. law.
On the copyright term, officials argued that the world is moving away from the century-old Berne Convention standard of 50 years toward a longer period. Anissa Brennan, the MPAA's head of trade, said harmonizing terms and other rules will reduce friction, help protect content and open up rapidly growing foreign markets.
The fate of fast track — and TPP — lies with lawmakers such as Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. He is negotiating with Republican leaders on trade-promotion legislation.
A bill could be introduced after Congress returns next week, and the GOP-controlled Senate needs some Democrats to get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
Pressure on Wyden has been mounting. The senator represents a liberal constituency and has been known as a champion of open Internet.
Last month, advocacy group Fight for the Future floated a large white blimp above a town-hall meeting that Wyden was holding in his home state. The message on the blimp's banner: "Save the Internet. Stop Fast Track."
Wyden told the Los Angeles Times that he had stood up against harmful legislation such as SOPA. And he suggested that U.S. trade officials had moved to a more balanced approach after he "pushed for new provisions on limitations and exceptions on copyright in the TPP negotiations."
Intellectual property is one of 29 chapters in the proposed TPP, which has been years in the making and involves 40% of the world economy.
Besides the three North American nations and Japan, the TPP parties are Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, Vietnam and Brunei. China isn't among the members, and administration officials have sought to sell the TPP as a way to ensure the U.S. writes the rules of global trade, not China.
Talks have been bogged down by tariff and market-access disputes, especially over farm goods and cars between the U.S. and Japan. But the TPP is far more encompassing in that the U.S.-led negotiations are trying to devise common rules and standards for such things as e-commerce, state-owned enterprises and government procurement.
Overall, the TPP isn't projected to make a big difference for most American workers, boosting annual U.S. economic output by less than 0.5% by the year 2025, according to a study co-written by Peter Petri, a Brandeis University professor.
Among U.S. firms, those in the services sector stand to see the biggest net gains, the research said. And Petri noted that it would be significant to establish rules for intellectual property in the fast-growing digital world.
"The whole area of Internet protection has not been addressed by the world trading system," he said. "It would help to have rules."
The question is, what kind of rules — and to whose advantage.
Labor unions have been deeply suspicious of trade agreements benefiting workers, especially after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
But TPP concerns have been voiced by a range of activists and scholars, including such prominent economists as former Obama advisor Lawrence Summers and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, who wrote that the "leaked text suggests very strong, even draconian [intellectual property] regime on copyright, patents, pharma, etc."
Critics worry about overly harsh enforcement measures against Internet service providers facilitating copyright infringement.
Some fear the TPP will go too far in supporting technologies that help copyright holders prevent piracy and control copying or altering of works, thus chilling free speech and so-called fair use of protected content for research, reporting and other purposes.
U.S. trade officials respond that many other groups representing patients, medical research and information technology support the goals of American negotiators.
Some of the TPP foes are globalists who "want to help poor people in poor countries," said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a policy think tank.
"But that's not the role of the U.S. government, which is to defend the U.S. economy and companies and workers," he said.
Conventional American manufacturing doesn't have much of an edge competitively, Atkinson said. "What we're trying to do is tilt the playing field toward our direction because it is so far against us."