EU anti-piracy law wins votes but critics remain

10 Mar 2004

In a move with serious implications for internet users who download music or movies from the internet, the European Parliament yesterday voted in favour of an anti-piracy directive that gives copyright holders new powers to enforce intellectual and industrial property rights. An opposition group aimed at protecting digital rights has criticised the law as “overbroad”.

The EU Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive would require all EU member states to apply remedies and penalties against those engaged in counterfeiting and piracy against any copyrights and including trademarks, designs or patents. Welcoming the news, the European Commission said it would “create a level playing field for right holders in the EU”.

The proposal will now go forward to the Council of Ministers, possibly as quickly as 11 March. The Commission said it hoped that the Directive would be adopted definitively at first reading, possibly in April 2004. Member States would then have two years to implement it.

In a statement, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights activist group, said it opposed the proposed Directive because it did not make a distinction between unintentional, non-commercial infringement by consumers and criminal counterfeiting done for profit. “Under this Directive, a person who unwittingly infringes copyright – even if it has no effect on the market – could potentially have her assets seized, bank accounts frozen, and home invaded,” said EFF staff attorney Gwen Hinze.

A coalition of consumer groups including the EFF had backed a set of amendments to the proposed Directive, which would have limited its application to intentional, commercial-scale infringement, but these amendments were rejected in a vote.

As originally drafted, the directive would have contained clauses that allowed copyright holders to target individual file-swappers with infringement claims, as has happened in the US with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. A late amendment added to the law could restrict civil lawsuits to large-scale commercial counterfeiters and pirates of CDs and movies, protecting individuals who download music and other media “in good faith” for their own personal use.

Although the proposed directive stops short of imposing criminal proceedings on individual file-swappers, although it does allow companies whose rights have been infringed to seize property, raid premises or ask courts to freeze bank accounts in cases where they believe their intellectual property has been abused or stolen.

By Gordon Smith