'DMCA on steroids' heads for Euro Parliament

The European Parliament is to vote next week on a controversial law that would extend companies' powers to crack down on pirates - and song-swappers

A proposed European Union law strengthening law-enforcement capabilities against intellectual-property violations is set for a crucial vote next week, amid criticism from civil liberties groups that it would allow companies to use draconian measures in what have previously been non-criminal cases.

"Intellectual property: Enforcing the rights, measures and procedures", known as the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive, is primarily aimed at cracking down on organised piracy and counterfeiting in the EU, but critics say its measures would criminalise previously innocuous offences such as street busking and book readers for the blind.

The directive had been scheduled for a 9 February vote in a plenary session of the European Parliament, but was delayed in order to hammer out a compromise. The Parliament hopes to approve the directive before June, when new member states will join the EU, according to industry observers.

According to civil-liberties group European Digital Rights (EDRI), a compromise put forward by the European Commission could allow member states more flexibility in deciding the scope of the law, for example limiting the applicability of criminal sanctions to what are currently civil offences.

The directive has been designed to extend to less serious acts of infringement, leading some to fear it will be used to crack down on casual Internet file-traders, as has happened in the US. "The scope of the directive... should not be restricted to cases where intellectual property rights are infringed for commercial purposes or where an infringement causes significant harm to the right holder," said the JURI committee when it approved the draft directive in November.

Civil liberties group the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure said the law, in its current form, would hand too much power to large rights holders and create a hostile environment for smaller companies. "The FFII is very concerned that, without better defined safeguards, the directive may lead to a far more agressive, lawyer-driven legal environment for creative businesses," the group said in a statement on Thursday.

The FFII called for the directive to be limited to its original scope, and said the parliamentary vote should be delayed until March in order to ensure a full debate. "This directive is simply too important to get wrong," the group stated.

Intense controversy has surrounded the directive, one of several major proposed changes to the way intellectual property is handled in the EU. A 2001 copyright directive, known as the EUCD, finally passed into UK law last October, after delays. The European Parliament approved a directive on software patents only after making significant changes, the result of widespread protests by computer scientists, economists, tech companies and software developers. A technology industry body in November condemned the changes, saying they would dilute patent protections.

When the IP enforcement proposal was first introduced in January 2003, it drew a "dismayed" reaction from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) and other copyright-holder lobbyists, which called for the measures to be beefed up.

The IFPI argued at the time the directive was introduced that the proposed measures are not tough enough to hold back an "epidemic of counterfeiting", complaining that "the tools the proposal introduces to bring actions against infringers do not even reach the levels already available under some existing national laws" and may "fall short" of what it called international standards, in a reference to the US' controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).