US Treasury exempts intellectual property fees from Syria sanctions

According to a PDF file recently released by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the US government has given a rather broad exemption for “certain transactions related to patents, trademarks, and copyrights” that would normally be prohibited under an Executive Order signed last August that established economic sanctions against Syria. The exemption includes activities such as “the filing and prosecution of any opposition or infringement proceeding with respect to a patent, trademark, copyright, or other form of intellectual property protection” and even “authorizes the payment of fees currently due to the United States Government or the Government of Syria […] in connection with [intellectual property-related activities]” (emphasis mine).

The document, titled “General License No. 15” comes amidst concerns that the Obama administration intends to beef up the prosecution of intellectual copyright infringement. It has recently indicted the large filesharing website Megaupload and intends to expand the Justice Department unit dedicated to such prosecutions. According to Reuters (17 February 2012):

The Justice Department asked Congress for $5 million to hire 14 new employees, including nine attorneys, to focus on intellectual property crimes. […] “We’ve had an increase in the number of cases that we’re dealing with in IP (intellectual property),” Deputy Attorney General James Cole told reporters. “We think this is an area that really needs some focus and some efforts and increases in the future.” […] If the budget request is approved by Congress, the team would grow to 34. The entertainment industry has been pushing the administration to do more, and efforts to pass new legislation to crack down further on such crimes has stalled.

It’s anyone’s best guess why the Obama administration chose the embargo against Syria–of all things–to apply an IP enforcement loophole. According to the US State Department’s 2011 Investment Climate Statement for the country:

Violations of intellectual property rights (IPR) are rampant in Syria. Patent, trademark, and copyright laws are all inadequate. As a result, Syria provides minimal protection for local producers and almost no protection for foreign producers.

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