MEPs back criminal sanctions for counterfeiters

The Parliament has narrowly backed a historical but controversial Directive that would force member states to harmonise their penal codes – for the first time ever – in order to combat counterfeiting and piracy across Europe.

In an effort to clamp down on piracy and counterfeiting, Parliament endorsed, on 25 April 2007, measures for fining counterfeiters up to €300,000 or, in the most serious cases, jailing them for up to four years. 

Rapporteur Nicola Zingaretti said that the directive – the first to harmonise member states’ criminal law – is needed to help combat large-scale organised crime. 

Smaller offences, such as the shared use of protected products (eg photocopies of books for study or research purposes or music file-sharing) will remain under national civil law. Furthermore, private individuals have been excluded from the scope of the Directive, so long as they do not generate any profit from the use of the product. 

Patents on inventions have also been left out of the Directive on the basis that such breaches are more difficult to verify and that civil law remains the most appropriate instrument for prosecuting this type of infringement. 

However, for all other intellectual property violations, the rules create harmonised sanctions for national authorities to deal out to offenders. 

The Directive will only enter into force if approved by member states. But that could prove somewhat difficult as countries such as the UK and the Netherlands fear that the EU is going too far by harmonising criminal codes – infringing on an area traditionally reserved for member states. 

Italian Socialist MEP Nicola Zingaretti, rapporteur on the dossier, said he was "delighted" with the vote, although he regretted MEPs' refusal to adopt an amendment allowing the set-up of 'Joint Investigation Teams', in which the holders of an allegedly infringed intellectual property right could take part in investigations alongside the police. 

"Organised crime is a global activity that does not recognise borders or customs…We want to make sure that, all over the EU, pirates and counterfeiters are punished," he said, adding: "It is about punishing mafia-style criminals, not about jailing kids who download music from the internet. 

British Conservative MEP Malcolm Harbour said: "The Conservatives are not convinced that there is need for EU legislation here. We believe it would make more sense to establish the effectiveness of the existing legislation before taking further measures." 

Austrian Green MEP Legal Affairs Committee Eva Lichtenberger said her group was concerned that the Directive would cause a lot more problems than it solves. "Under the pretence of combating large-scale counterfeiting, the directive proposes criminal sanctions for a potentially far-reaching range of so-called intellectual property infringements. Many of the areas to be covered in the proposed Directive - such as copyright - are already dealt with effectively by national civil laws; so there is no justification for introducing EU-wide criminal penalties for such minor infringements." 

However, she welcomed the fact that private individuals would not be covered by the proposed criminal penalties. "Without exempting personal use, something as banal as a music download could be regarded as a criminal act," she said. 

GUE/NGL MEP Umberto Guidoni was unhappy that the Directive had not been rejected, saying that it confused counterfeiting with violations of intellectual property and would render the fight against criminal counterfeiting less effective. 

"It would have been more useful to only limit the application of the directive to violations of copyright and look at the commercial production of counterfeit multimedia products, an area in which organised crime operates intensely," he said, nevertheless adding: "At least we managed to secure some limitations that protect the private not for profit use of P2P and file sharing." 

Intellectual property infringements – involving anything from pirate music and films to fake handbags or car pieces and counterfeit medicines – have increased dramatically over the past decade, with a 1,600% rise in the volume of counterfeit goods, causing the loss of 125,000 jobs. 

Economic losses related to counterfeiting are estimated at around €500 billion per year through lost business opportunities and tax revenues, and some fake products also present a serious health threat. 

  • 25 April 2007: The Directive was adopted in the Parliament's plenary session. 
  • If agreed by the Council, it will enter into force immediately following its publication in the Official Journal. 
  • Member states would then have 18 months to transpose the Directive. 

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