European Parliament postpones vote on IP law

The European Parliament has postponed a vote on a controversial law on intellectual property enforcement until early March, following drawn out negotiations with the European Commission and member state governments.

The Parliament’s legal affairs committee is to discuss the proposal with the Irish government, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union (E.U.), and with the Union’s executive body, the European Commission, on Monday in an attempt to reach an agreement that can be rubber stamped at next month’s vote by the European Parliament.

The Commission is resisting signing up to an agreement that would stretch the reach of the law to all infringements of intellectual property such as patents, copyright and trademarks, according to people close to the Commission.

In its original proposal, the E.U. executive body limited the tough criminal sanctions only to infringements made for commercial purposes, tailoring the law to fight counterfeiting and piracy.

When it unveiled its proposal at the beginning of 2003 the record industry and Hollywood movie studios slammed it as insufficient. The record industry in particular wants the law to apply to private infringements, such as those committed by peer-to-peer exchanges of music files.

These rights holders joined forces with others such as software producers, who also lose out from counterfeiting, and they lobbied the European Parliament intensively to get the proposed law toughened up.

Their efforts were rewarded by the Parliament’s legal affairs committee, under the supervision of Janelly Fourtou in late 2003, when it adopted amendments to the text that struck out the words “for commercial purposes.”

Fourtou, the so-called rapporteur on the dossier, has been criticized for being too close to the music industry. Her husband, Jean-Rene Fourtou is the chief executive of Vivendi Universal SA, the parent company of the world’s biggest record company, Universal Music.

In an interview last year she denied any conflict of interest.

The Irish presidency is expected to support the Parliament’s plans to stretch the reach of the law. However, it is unlikely to agree to permit criminal sanctions. Ireland, as well as many other countries in the Union, prefers to leave the choice of sanctions up to member state governments, and wants the reference to criminal punishment scrapped from the text.

“There is a feeling that this isn’t the right place to introduce criminal sanctions,” said one E.U. diplomat, on condition of anonymity.

The Commission may try to block the law if it can’t be won over at Monday’s closed-door meeting. Under E.U. procedures, the Commission can insist that all 15 current E.U. member states must vote unanimously in order to pass the law, once the Parliament has voted in support of the proposal.

Normally it requires only a two-thirds majority of member states in order to pass a Union-wide law.

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