EU court to examine global copyright pact

Wed Apr 4, 2012 2:43pm EDT

* EU Commission refers global copyright deal to top court

* European Parliament gets ready to vote on deal

By Claire Davenport

BRUSSELS, April 4 (Reuters) - Europe's top court will determine whether a global trade agreement on copyright theft breaches citizens' fundamental rights including the freedom of expression, the European Commission said on Wednesday.

The European Union executive said it had referred the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which is designed to tackle intellectual property theft, to the European Court of Justice for evaluation in response to concerns it could damage people's basic rights.

Its decision may complicate and delay the pact's entry into force across the EU. It is backed by the United States and others but many countries in the EU have yet to adopt it.

"The Commission aims to respond to the wide-ranging concerns voiced by people across Europe on what ACTA is about and whether it harms fundamental rights in any way," the EU executive said in a statement.

Karel de Gucht, the EU commissioner for Trade, said the referral would allow the court to independently clarify the legality of the agreement.

"Considering that tens of thousands of people have voiced their concerns about ACTA, it is appropriate to give our highest independent judicial body the time to deliver its legal opinion on this agreement. This is an important input to European public and democratic debate," he said.

The Luxembourg-based court can take months before it issues opinions in such cases.

The pact aims to reduce intellectual property theft by imposing penalties for actions such as the use of counterfeit trademarks and large-scale digital file-sharing of anything from pirated software to music.

Some European politicians and campaigners fear that the agreement will allow the authorities to cut internet access for suspected offenders.

However supporters of the agreement, such as the European Commission, dispute this, insisting that it would only punish copyright crimes of a commercial scale.

The European Parliament, which has been sceptical about the agreement and whose backing is required for it to become law in the EU, is expected to vote on the issue in May.

The Commission, which originally negotiated the agreement with countries including Canada, Australia and the United States, has asked parliamentarians to postpone their vote until the court has made its decision.

But David Martin, a Scottish Labour parliamentarian who is leading discussions in the legislature, said it intended to stick to a scheduled vote on May 29.

Members of the parliament voted against referring the trade agreement to the EU's court.

"We are politically against referring ACTA to the court, because we think that it should be rejected immediately", said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German lawmaker with the Green party.

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