Europe clamps down on music piracy

BRUSSELS (Billboard) - New anti-piracy measures could see pirates across the European Union facing greatly increased sentences.

The European Parliament is due to vote April 27 on a proposed European Commission (EC) directive, which for the first time would harmonize criminal penalties for a specific range of intellectual-property (IP) crimes in all 27 EU countries.

The legislation, which is widely expected to be adopted, would replace individual domestic legislation across the region, where pirates currently face wildly differing penalties depending on where they are prosecuted.

The new penalties would introduce a maximum four-year prison sentence for IP crime, and fines of up to EUR91,050 ($121,430), rising to EUR273,160 ($364,290) if organized crime involvement is proved -- a substantial increase on most current penalties. The law is designed to target commercial pirates, both online and physical, but is not intended to be used against individual, private copiers, who will still be subject to the law in their individual territory.

Italian socialist member of the European Parliament Nicola Zingaretti drafted the current proposal, which was approved March 20 by the Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee.

The next step is the Parliament vote, after which the directive will be sent to EU member governments for approval before this summer.

Zingaretti argues that national law is no longer enough to fight international piracy. EU-wide adoption of the new directive, he says, means that “criminal enterprises gaining millions on the shoulders of authors and distributors will have to cope with stricter European legislation.”

However, while European labels might be expected to welcome the prospect of increased penalties for piracy, a lobbyist for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) claims the measures are neither far-enough reaching nor appropriate.

Frances Moore, IFPI regional director for Europe, says the group is concerned that the proposed directive’s attempts to strictly define copyright crime could actually allow infringers to escape punishment if their offenses do not precisely meet its criteria.

“The problem is,” she says, “that some amendments would start interfering in substantive criminal law at a national level, which was never the intention of the (initial) proposal.

“Rights holders in Europe need a reliable legal framework where intellectual-property rights are effectively enforced,” she adds.

Although the IFPI does not publish Europe-wide statistics on piracy, its July 2006 piracy report identified EU member states Greece, Italy and Spain in its global top 10 of “priority countries for action.”

According to the IFPI, pirated product in Greece accounts for 50% of all music sales. The labels body complained that an overlenient judicial system and ineffectual policing was hampering the fight against piracy. In its report, the IFPI also particularly criticized a lack of meaningful deterrent sentencing in Italy, where the piracy rate is 26%. The piracy rate in Spain is 22%.

Another EU member, Bulgaria, was named one of four “special focus” countries, partly because the country’s criminal code “does not outlaw the possession of pirated materials for commercial purposes.”

Zingaretti’s proposal is based on an April 2006 EC draft aimed at combating piracy on a commercial scale. But his version seeks to clearly define such key terms as “commercial scale,” “counterfeiting,” “piracy” and “intentional infringement,” which was not the case in the original draft.

Moore says that the original EC draft did not include strict definitions, thus keeping it in line with current World Trade Organization practice and ensuring a degree of discretion for judges at a national level.

But Zingaretti claims that his amendments to that draft are intended to make quite clear what constitutes commercial piracy thereby ensuring that individual consumers “violating a copyright shouldn’t be threatened as common criminals.”

Other IP trade bodies, including independent labels body Impala, the Motion Picture Assn., the International Video Federation and the Business Software Alliance, have also indicated they are uncomfortable with the proposed directive.

One concern, Impala secretary general Philippe Kern says, is that the proposal does not address the responsibilities of Internet service providers with respect to online piracy.