U.S. Trade Representative Flags Vietnam as a Leading Source of Online Piracy

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The Office of the United States Trade Representative has released its annual Special 301 Report, calling out countries that fall short on anti-piracy enforcement and other forms of intellectual property protection. Countries such as Argentina and China are listed as priority threats, while Vietnam is labeled a leading source of online piracy. The USTR urges the Asian country to tackle the problem and take criminal prosecutions seriously.

vietnam wall flagEach year the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) publishes a new update of its Special 301 Report, highlighting countries that fail to live up to U.S copyright protection standards.

The annual overview is meant to urge foreign governments to improve policy and legislation in favor of U.S. copyright holders.

The process has shown itself to be an effective diplomatic tool and has helped to kick-start copyright reforms around the globe. Not all governments are equally susceptible to critique and Canada once described the process as flawed. Still, no country wants to be included in the list.

2024 Special 301 Report

USTR’s latest Special 301 Report, published yesterday, features considerable overlap with previous editions. The ‘Priority Watch List’ countries remain unchanged; they are Argentina, Chile, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, and Venezuela.

The reported issues range from high levels of online piracy to problems with trademark protection. Inadequate legal protections, enforcement shortcomings, and other trade barriers are frequently mentioned too.

These priority threats are followed by regular Watch List countries, twenty in total. They include United States’ neighbors, Canada and Mexico, as well as Brazil, Bulgaria, Egypt, and Vietnam.

The inclusion of Vietnam doesn’t come as a surprise since it’s been on the Watch List for a few years now. According to reports from rightsholders, the piracy problem has only worsened since then.

‘Online Piracy Haven’

The USTR’s report is partly based on these rightsholder complaints. They include a detailed submission from IIPA earlier this year, which characterized the Asian country as the leading global exporter of piracy services.

“Vietnam has become a leading global exporter of piracy services and Vietnamese operators have been associated with some of the world’s most pervasive piracy websites, causing significant damage to both the local and international marketplaces,” IIPA wrote.

The country is considered ‘home’ to problematic sites and services such as Fmovies, AniWave, 123movies, 2embed, BestBuyIPTV, and Y2mate, which have many millions of monthly users globally. Rightsholders repeatedly report these problems to local authorities but apparently with little effect.

Earlier this week there appeared to be somewhat of a breakthrough when the operator of “BestBuyIPTV” received a suspended prison sentence from a local court. However, the popular IPTV service remains online and despite rightsholder celebrations, it’s uncertain whether the relatively mild sentence will have any deterrent effect.

‘Leading Source of Online Piracy’

What’s clear, however, is that Vietnam is a high-priority country for anti-piracy efforts. While that didn’t translate into a “Priority Watch List” label, USTR’s Special 301 listing for Vietnam is becoming more concrete.

The Trade Representative starts by acknowledging that Vietnam has taken steps to improve its copyright law. Other positive signs include an increase in raids and seizures of counterfeit goods and increased enforcement. However, piracy remains a problem.

“Vietnam has increasingly become a leading source of online piracy, including through online piracy services that capitalize on the widespread use of illicit streaming devices and applications,” USTR writes.

“Vietnam currently hosts some of the most popular piracy sites and services in the world that target a global audience,” the Special 301 Report adds.

The language in USTR’s report is more robust than last year when there was no mention of Vietnam’s leading role in online piracy. And that’s not the only change either; complaints about the lack of enforcement are sharpened too.

Vietnam’s Failure to Deter Online Piracy

In recent years the major Hollywood studios have made a series of criminal referrals backed up by their own investigations, but responses from the authorities leave a lot to be desired.

“Despite having criminal laws imposing substantial fines and years of incarceration for copyright and trademark infringement, Vietnam has almost no criminal investigations or prosecutions,” USTR writes.

“Stakeholders note there has yet to be a single criminal conviction for a copyright offense in Vietnam, as a criminal investigation against the operators of Phimmoi.net has stalled and Vietnamese authorities have not addressed other criminal complaints submitted by stakeholders.”

USTR’s enforcement comments are somewhat dated as they were written before the recent conviction of a ‘BestBuyIPTV’ operator. That said, one suspended prison sentence after a four-year legal process seems unlikely to change much.

Vietnam mostly relies on administrative enforcement actions, but they have failed to stop the large pirate sites and services from operating. The MPA and ACE had limited success by privately taking action against 2Embed and Zoro.to, but ‘successors‘ of both platforms remain active today.

According to the USTR, these private actions are no substitute for full-fledged criminal prosecutions.

“[A] few successful efforts by stakeholders to negotiate directly with operators of piracy sites to shut down the sites are no substitute for enforcement actions and criminal prosecutions by government authorities,” USTR writes.

Reading between the lines, it’s clear that the U.S. would like Vietnam to step up its anti-piracy efforts significantly. While things have been slowly moving in that direction recently, the critique will likely remain, at least until some big fish are caught.

A copy of the USTR’s full 2024 Special 301 Report is available here (pdf)


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