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Antipiracy law heads for EU vote

The European Parliament is set to vote next week on a controversial law that would extend companies' powers to crack down on pirates and song-swappers

The European Parliament is set to vote next week on a controversial law that would extend companies' powers to crack down on pirates and song-swappers.

The proposed law, the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive, is primarily aimed at strengthening law-enforcement capabilities against organized piracy and counterfeiting in the European Union. But civil rights groups say its measures would criminalize previously innocuous activities, such as sidewalk entertainment and book readers for the blind.

The directive had been scheduled for a Feb. 9 vote in a plenary session of the European Parliament, but was delayed in order to hammer out a compromise. The parliament hopes to approve the directive before June, when new member states will join the EU, according to industry observers.

According to European Digital Rights (EDRI), a civil liberties group, a compromise put forward by the European Commission could allow member states more flexibility in deciding the scope of the law. For example, they could limit the applicability of criminal sanctions to what are currently civil offences.

The directive has been designed to extend to less-serious acts of infringement, leading some to fear it will be used to crack down on casual Internet file-traders, as has happened in the United States.

"The scope of the directive... should not be restricted to cases where intellectual property rights are infringed for commercial purposes or where an infringement causes significant harm to the right holder," said the Committee on Legal Affairs and the Internal Market (JURI) when it approved the draft directive in November.

The Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure said the law, in its current form, would hand too much power to large rights holders and create a hostile environment for smaller companies. "The FFII is very concerned that, without better defined safeguards, the directive may lead to a far more aggressive, lawyer-driven legal environment for creative businesses," the civil liberties group said in a statement on Thursday.

The FFII called for the directive to be limited to its original scope and said the parliamentary vote should be delayed until March in order to ensure a full debate. "This directive is simply too important to get wrong," the group stated.

Intense controversy has surrounded the directive, one of several major proposed changes to the way intellectual property is handled in the EU. A 2001 copyright directive, known as the EUCD, finally passed into U.K. law last October, after delays. The European Parliament approved a directive on software patents only after making significant changes, the result of widespread protests by computer scientists, economists, tech companies and software developers. A technology industry body in November condemned the changes, saying they would dilute patent protections.

When the IP enforcement proposal was introduced in January 2003, it drew a "dismayed" reaction from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) and other copyright-holder lobbyists, which called for the measures to be beefed up.

The IFPI argued at the time the directive was introduced that the proposed measures are not tough enough to hold back an "epidemic of counterfeiting," and complained 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 controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the United States.

Matthew Broersma of ZDNet UK reported from London.