Lobbying heats up ahead of EU anti-piracy law debate

Europe’s largest telecommunications companies, the cable industry and several well known American Internet firms have joined forces in an effort to change a controversial proposal for a European Union law to combat counterfeiting and piracy of articles such as computer software, online music and movies. A European Parliament committee will debate the draft law on Thursday.

The European NetAlliance, which includes companies such as BT Group PLC, Deutsche Telekom AG, Vodafone Group PLC, MCI, Verizon Communications Inc. and Yahoo Inc. wrote to members of the European Parliament sitting on the legal affairs committee and warned them of the risks of broadening the directive’s scope, as the committee appears set to do.

Europe’s consumer organization, Bureau European des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC), wrote a separate letter to the committee members voicing similar concerns.

The Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement directive was designed by its author, the European Commission, to combat the growing problem of counterfeiting. It proposed criminal sanctions for people found guilty of breaching rights including copyright, trademark and patents, but only if they did so for commercial purposes.

Janelly Fourtou, the Member of European Parliament (MEP) in charge of shepherding the draft law through the Parliament, wants to scrap the words “for commercial purposes” so that criminal sanctions can be applied even when a private individual breaches copyright by, for example, downloading music unofficially from the Internet.

Fourtou’s suggested amendment to the draft law has sparked a chorus of disapproval, partly because she is seen to have a vested interest in protecting music firms from illegal file sharers on the Internet. Her husband is Jean-Rene Fourtou, the chief executive of Vivendi Universal SA, owner of Universal Music Group Inc., the largest music company in the world.

“We are worried that the current European Parliament text would allow consumers to be prosecuted, judged and condemned as harshly as a person making and selling millions of copies of CDs,” the BEUC said in its letter, adding: “We do not see why a consumer downloading music from the Internet to make a private copy for personal and non-commercial use should be prosecuted at all.”

The NetAlliance told MEPs of the risks that such a widening of the directive would pose to the future of eEurope and the Internet. “It must be ensured that consumers are not placed on the same level as parties that violate copyright for commercial gain or as members of organised crime,” the trade group wrote.

It told MEPs that existing Europewide laws such as the e-commerce directive and the copyright directive “already provide the basis for rightholders to take legal actions against all kinds of on-line infringements.”

Meanwhile, the European Publishers Council (EPC), which represents the interests of print media groups, has joined forces with lobbyists for the record industry, Hollywood studios and some software firms, to persuade the European Parliament to toughen the law even further in their favour.

“If piracy and counterfeiting is not tackled urgently, jobs will be lost, many creative industries will fail, innovation will be curtailed and the result will be an economically and culturally diminished creative sector: the economy will lose out, consumers will lose out,” EPC Chairman Francisco Pinto Balsem