Euro Parliament antipiracy compromise disappoints both sides

Critics and supporters of a new Europe-wide antipiracy law were disappointed by a compromise text approved Tuesday by the European Parliament.

Originally intended to stop peddlers in goods such as pirated CDs, counterfeit luxury items and look-alike drugs, the law has morphed to become more wide-reaching, according to consumer groups and civil liberties champions. They argue that the law will be used to clamp down on individuals who copy music off the Internet, as well as those who make money copying goods created by others.

Meanwhile, intellectual property rights owners, such as record companies and software manufacturers, described the new law as a step in the right direction, but said it falls short of their expectations.

“Rights holders are unhappy about it, but it is an in-between solution we can live with,” said Francisco Mingorance, director of public policy in the Brussels office of the Business Software Alliance, a trade group representing firms including Microsoft Corp.

Rights holders urged the European Commission to push ahead with another tougher law that imposes criminal punishments for all types of intellectual property infringements.

The text supported by a majority of members of the European Parliament at a plenary meeting in Strasbourg, France, is far less draconian than some members wanted. Attempts to criminalize petty infringements of intellectual property by private individuals were thrown out, and the ability of rights holders to demand bank details and computer information about suspected intellectual property abusers was restricted to serious cases only.

Rights holders will need an injunction signed by “a competent judicial authority” to search the premises of a suspect, according to the compromise version. Some members of parliament wanted to grant rights holders much easier access to premises of suspected abusers.

Andreas Dietl, European Union (EU) affairs director at European Digital Rights, a group fighting for citizens’ rights on the Internet, said that the law is not adequate because “a competent judicial authority could be a court clerk. We wanted this law to specify that a judge should sign such an injunction.”

However, telecommunications companies, which have opposed attempts to force them to reveal information about their Internet subscribers, said they can live with the compromise text.

“Whilst we have doubts that the directive as a whole will produce the harmonized approach to IPR (intellectual property rights) enforcement that Europe’s policymakers want, we can at least see now a number of safeguards that are crucial for our sector and our customers”, said Michael Bartholomew, director of an association of former European telecoms monopolies.

Harmonizing national antipiracy laws across the EU was the stated aim when the Commission started drafting the proposed law four years ago. A Europe-wide law is vital to stem the tide of counterfeiting and piracy, said Frits Bolkestein, the commissioner in charge of the initiative, in an interview last year.

Counterfeiting and piracy cost the US$9.9 billion a year in lost economic output between 1998 and 2001, according to the Commission. About 35 per cent of all computer software bought in western Europe last year was pirated, according to the Business Software Alliance. In central and eastern European countries set to join the union in May, the problem may be even more acute. Microsoft estimates that 65 per cent of all computer software in use there is pirated.

There is consensus here that a Europe-wide law is needed to combat counterfeiting because so much of the illegal activity crosses national boundaries. But all the compromise text does is set minimum standards, rather than providing a harmonized EU-wide approach, said Thomas Vinje, an expert in IP law and a partner in the Brussels office of law firm Clifford Chance.

The laws in some countries such as Britain and Italy are too harsh. “The laws in these countries are often abused by rights holders,” he said. Harmonizing the rules across the EU should have forced these countries to tone down their laws.

“The issue of protection of intellectual property isn’t as black and white as it’s made out to be. A Europe-wide law should take into account the fact that rights holders will abuse IP laws in order to gain a competitive advantage if they can. This law won’t do that,” he said.

The 10 new members joining the EU in May have had almost no role in drafting the law, which is being rushed through with unprecedented haste for a complicated piece of legislation. A second debate by the European Parliament, which is the normal procedure for such laws, won’t take place in this instance, so that the code is passed before the May 1 date for the EU’s expansion.

National governments of the existing member states, with the European Parliament and the Commission, hammered out the compromise ahead of Tuesday’s Parliament vote, making a second reading unnecessary.

“It’s an odd lesson in democracy for the former communist states of central Europe,” Vinje said.

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