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Rights groups target antipiracy directive

As an intellectual property rights directive heads into the European Parliament, citizens groups are calling for amendments to limit its scope.

Civil liberties groups are engaging in a last-minute attempt to alter a controversial intellectual-property law that they claim will lead to a flood of frivolous lawsuits against consumers and small businesses.

The Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive, which passed through the European Parliament's judicial affairs committee last month, is scheduled for a parliamentary debate on Monday. The parliament is set to vote on the directive Tuesday, in the last chance for members of the European Parliament to introduce amendments before ministers vote on the directive Thursday. If approved, member states would have two years to incorporate the directive's provisions into national laws.

The directive is primarily aimed at cracking down on organized piracy and counterfeiting in the EU, which is a growing problem. Critics, however, say the directive's scope has been broadened to cover not just piracy for commercial purposes, but also involuntary acts or those committed by individuals without commercial intent or impact.

According to U.K. civil rights group the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), the law would also allow large companies to use draconian legal measures to threaten and harass smaller competitors, for example, by raiding their premises, seizing evidence and freezing bank accounts in highly technical patent infringement cases.

A coalition of citizen- and consumer-rights groups, including FIPR, is calling for parliament members to support a collection of amendments that it asserts will place appropriate limitations on the directive. More than 100 parliament members have already pledged to support the amendments.

Ian Brown, FIPR's director of the coalition, said the directive must be limited in order to serve the interests of EU citizens and rights holders. "Otherwise it will lead to a flood of lawsuits against small businesses and consumers that will discredit European law in this area," he said in a statement.

A representative for the Business Software Alliance, which has been fighting to broaden the directive's scope and penalties, recently said stronger enforcement was needed to curb the activities of criminal gangs. The alliance cited research that 37 percent of the software in use in Western European businesses is illegal. Reducing the United Kingdom's software piracy rate from 25 percent to 15 percent would add $18.5 billion (10 billion pounds) to the country's gross domestic product, $4.6 billion in tax revenue and 40,000 IT jobs, according to IDC figures quoted by the Business Software Alliance.

The European recording industry association has criticized the directive as not going far enough to crack down on piracy because its measures are not as harsh as those in some member states.

Matthew Broersma of ZDNet UK reported from London.