France could become the first country to pass a law broadly permitting free downloads of copyright content from the Internet for private use.
In a move that could thwart the entertainment industry's attempts to seek legal sanctions for copyright violations, French Parliament members voted 30 to 28 late Wednesday night to accept an amendment proposing such a move.
Attached to a broader copyright law proposal, the amendment--roughly translated--reads: "Authors cannot forbid the reproductions of works that are made on any format from an online communication service when they are intended to be used privately and when they do not imply commercial means directly or indirectly."
In short, that language could "open the way to the legalization of peer-to-peer" downloading of copyright music and movies in the nation of about 8 million Net users, Jean-Baptiste Soufron, a legal counsel with the Association of Audionauts, said in a telephone interview with CNET News.com. The French advocacy organization has represented approximately 100 clients accused of sharing files illegally.
Under French copyright law, there's a concept called "private copy," which permits people to make copies of content for themselves or their friends, Soufron said. But lately, he added, "they're having a huge debate to know if 'private copy' includes downloaded content on the Internet or not."
A French court ruled in favor of the organization recently, holding that downloaded content for personal use does meet the "private copy" definition, Soufron said. But this amendment would give firmer legal backing in a nation that relies more heavily on codified law than court precedents, he said.
The Association of Audionauts isn't suggesting that copyright holders go without compensation, Soufron said. It supports pairing the amendment's text with a royalty tax collected from Internet service providers. Those companies would likely raise the money by levying a monthly fee--say, 2 to 5 euros--on customers who engage in a certain amount of downloading and uploading.
The IFPI, a trade association that speaks for the music industry worldwide, said it was "greatly concerned" by the amendment's initial approval.
"Instead of promoting the growth of legitimate music services on the Internet, some of the measures would be extremely detrimental to legal services and to the future of the French cultural industries," the organization said in a statement provided to CNET News.com.
But IFPI European spokeswoman Francine Cunningham said the proposal doesn't appear to permit unfettered uploading of copyright content. "This distinction is important because the recording industry's ongoing litigation is against major uploaders who are breaking copyright law by making music available to others via the Internet without permission from those who created the music," she said.
Last year, a Canadian judge came to a similar conclusion, ruling it legal to download--but not to upload--copyright content from peer-to-peer services.
The ultimate success of the proposal is far from certain.
French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, along with much of the government, supports beefing up the nation's copyright laws significantly, instituting criminal penalties and steep fines for pirates. The official reopened debate on the issue on Thursday, with a second vote expected later in the day.
Even if it survives the Parliament's lower court, it would also have to win approval from its high court, which likely won't consider the measure until late January.
Across the Atlantic, the Motion Picture Association of America on Thursday called the amendment "an unfortunate development." "Most alarming is the apparent disregard for the potential impact on the French cinema industry, which will be hardest hit if this vote is upheld," said Gayle Osterberg, an MPAA vice president. "We are hopeful as this bill works its way through the legislative process, those with an eye toward fostering French cinema will prevail."