EU ministers reject ban on free downloading

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EU culture ministers yesterday (20 November) rejected French proposals to curb online piracy through compulsory measures against free downloading, instead agreeing to promote legal offers of music or films on the Internet.

The EU Culture Council pushed yesterday (20 November) for “a fair balance between the various fundamental rights” while fighting online piracy, first listing “the right to personal data protection,” then “the freedom of information” and only lastly “the protection of intellectual property”. 

The Council conclusions also stressed the importance of “consumers’ expectations in terms of access […] and diversity of the content offered online”. No mention was made of a gradual response to serial downloaders of illegal cultural material, as foreseen by the French authorities.

The gradual response, which would turn Internet service providers into a sort of police of the net, was ruled out in the legislative process to review EU rules governing electronic communications too. The European Commission never proposed such an instrument, while the European Parliament blocked several amendments aimed at introducing these measures (EURACTIV 25/09/08). The Council has already clearly opposed the idea, and this stance is expected to be confirmed in the telecoms ministers meeting on 27 November.

Culture ministers have always been the most keen to fight piracy, therefore yesterday’s mild conclusions represent a victory for consumers’ associations and supporters of freedom of information.

Preventing piracy remains a key goal nonetheless. But it must be achieved not via enforcement measures, but through the promotion of legal offers as well as efficient technical means, said ministers.

Regarding legal implications, ministers did not fully back the French EU Presidency’s proposal to cancel or reduce VAT for music or movies sold online. Nevertheless, they agreed to “review the periods within which films may be made available in order to encourage the diversity and attractiveness of legal offer of films online”.

As for the technical aspects, ministers said they would “encourage efforts to promote the interoperability and ensure the transparency of technical measures to protect and manage rights, for example by means of a system of identification/labelling”. 

A good example of this is currently being applied by YouTube, the biggest video-sharing website in the world. Thanks to ‘Video ID‘ (technology developed by Google, the owner of YouTube), it is possible to track videos and movies that have been illegally downloaded or watched. 

Music sector lobbies and the wider online content production industry have triggered the introduction of a range of initiatives to reduce internet piracy in Europe, such as downloading or exchanging songs, films and software without respecting copyright rules.

The toughest stance was adopted by the French government, which is planning to set up a new authority "with powers to suspend or cut access to the Web for those who illegally file-share". The provision is expected to become law in France by next year.

Britain opted instead for a voluntary agreement between service providers, copyright holders and consumers. No authority is planned but similar dissuasive measures for serial illegal downloaders are in store (EURACTIV 25/07/08).

At EU level, the Commission adopted a policy paper on 'Creative content online' at the beginning of 2008, citing the French model as an example for the enforcement of bans on illegal downloading, while stressing the importance of "voluntary" (rather than compulsory) measures (EURACTIV 10/12/07).

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