Europe Stumbling in Efforts to Battle Internet Piracy

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Loic Venance / AFP / Getty Images

An MP3 music file being downloaded through a peer to peer website.

Internet piracy is costing the U.K. alone almost $300 million a year, according to technology analysis group Jupiter Research. Little wonder that European capitals are racing to win more powers to take on the worst pirates. So far, though, they don't seem to be getting too far.

In France earlier this week the Constitutional Council, effectively France's Supreme Court, ruled that proposed laws that would have forced Internet service providers (ISPs) to identify and help prosecute users who illegally trade copyrighted material, were unconstitutional. The news comes as a blow for the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy as well as organizations around Europe that had been hoping that the French example might spur other governments into greater action against illegal file sharing.

But the rejection of the laws, along with the growing unpopularity of other proposed restrictions, shows that governments will have to tread carefully when legislating — and there may have to be some major changes to way Europeans think about copyright.

The next big test is likely to come in Britain, which will release a report next week into looking at the country's digital future. According to the report the Brits owe more of their GDP to creative industries than those in the U.S., Canada, France and Australia, making it more susceptible to the losses from file sharing. An interim report, released in January, put forward proposals for a Rights Agency to help deal with the difficulties of copyright in the digital age and set out a plan for illegal downloading similar to the French laws. ISPs, said the interim report, would be required to "notify alleged infringers of rights ... that their conduct is unlawful." Internet providers would also have to "collect anonymised information on serious repeat infringers ... to be made available to rights-holders together with personal details on receipt of a court order."

British artists and others working in the creative industries hope that such recommendations remain in the final report. Speaking at the beginning of April, when the French plans still looked solid, Geoff Taylor, Chief Executive of BPI, a body that represents the British music industry, said, "Britain's creative industries must not lose out to those of other countries where copyright infringement is being dealt with." In a letter to Britain's Daily Telegraph last week, Brendan Barber, general secretary to the Trades Union Congress, emphasized the potential for job losses: "Any chance to avoid unnecessary job losses must be seized — and for the film, music and TV industries, there has never been a more urgent time. The Government must make Internet Service Providers live up to their responsibility to stem the flow of jobs caused by piracy."

But there are signs that a populist, anti-copyright movement may be gaining strength. Earlier this month, Sweden voted a member of the Pirate Party, which campaigned on an anti-copyright platform, to the European Parliament. The party, which won 7.13% of the vote, is named after Swedish file sharing website Pirate Bay. Earlier this year, a Swedish court sentenced four of the Bay founders to a year in prison each and a fine of approximately $3.6 million for "assisting in making copyright content available." There is no formal connection between Bay and the Pirate Party but there is little hiding where the party's sympathies lie. "Most mainstream parties don't understand that the Internet is an important part of life," says deputy leader Christian Engström, "They think of it as some kind of computer game you can take away from kids when they are naughty."

The party now has chapters in more than 20 countries and members feel a growing sense of momentum. "We had expected to see 18-year-old computer science students as the first arrivals, but look at our forum and you'll see a chartered accountant, a retired policeman, and a middle-aged punk all pulling in the same direction," Jonathon Than of the U.K. Pirate Party says. "A month ago getting our name on a ballot paper was a daunting task, today it's an inevitability."

Fergal Sharkey, CEO of U.K. Music, an organization representing the interests of the commercial music industry (and a former pop singer himself), reckons that the success of the anti-copyright movement among young voters "sends a message that we need to think about how we are approaching the issue." Mark Mulligan, an analyst at technology-research company Forrester, agrees. "The problem with looking to legislation to help meet business ends is that the results are often unfavorable to all affected business parties," he says. "Legislation simply cannot move quickly enough to keep up with the evolution of peer-to-peer technology."

Mike McGuire, analyst with media-research company Gartner, concurs: "Ultimately, this is just extending a game of cat and mouse." And we all know who won in Tom and Jerry.