September 11, 2003 3:37 PM PDT

EU delays vote on digital copyright plan

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A vote on the European Union's proposed directive on the enforcement of intellectual property rights, which has been compared to a controversial U.S. law, has been pushed back to November.

A U.K. civil liberties group says it believes the law could even backfire on some large high-tech companies, such as Microsoft and eBay, by opening the companies up to more serious legal attacks. Microsoft is one of the sponsors of the proposed directive.

The proposed directive on the enforcement of intellectual property rights, earlier set for a vote in a Thursday plenary session, is now scheduled for discussion on Nov. 4. Janelly Fourtou, the European Parliament member responsible for guiding the proposal, has not yet produced her report on the draft legislation, according to those familiar with the situation.

When the proposal on enforcement of intellectual property rights was first introduced in January, it drew a "dismayed" reaction from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) and other copyright holder lobbyists, which called for the measure to be beefed up.

The IFPI argued in January that the proposed measures are not tough enough to hold back an "epidemic of counterfeiting," complaining that "the tools the proposal introduces to bring actions against infringers do not even reach the levels already available under some existing national laws" and may "fall short" of what it called international standards, in a reference to the United States' controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The IFPI estimated that more than 1 billion pirated music CDs have been sold, which means that one in every three CDs is illegal. The organization estimates that the industry has lost $4.6 billion because of piracy.

Rather than taking on board the strongest antipiracy measures of the member states, the draft legislation aims to represent "best practice" legislation, according to the European Union.

Civil liberties threat?
Critics say large multinationals would be the biggest beneficiaries of the directive because of its ban on reverse engineering.

But the directive could backfire on some of its sponsors, such as Microsoft, according to Ross Anderson of the United Kingdom's Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR). He said while currently, Microsoft is able to "steamroll" most of the civil patent infringement actions against it, these could become more of a threat when such infringement is criminalized.

Online auction giant eBay could also be among the unexpected victims, Anderson said, because sales of intellectual property are subject to lawsuits if sold outside their original legal jurisdiction.

"If you buy a CD in New York, and next year you sell it on eBay to a person in Paris, you can be sued for copyright infringement," Anderson said. "At present, no one bothers. However, once such sales become a crime, they could add up to something nasty."

The European Parliament is also facing criticism over a 2001 directive on copyright. An analysis on the implementation of the copyright directive, published this week by FIPR, said the law was damaging European scientific research as well as eroding consumers' rights on how they may make use of copyrighted materials.

The delay in voting on the new proposal follows the rescheduling of a vote on a proposal on the patentability of computer-implemented inventions, which has attracted heated criticism from computer scientists, economists and developers. Critics charge that it would make efficient software development difficult and increase the grip of large multinational companies on the software industry.

Matthew Broersma of ZDNet UK reported from London.

 

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