Europe's 'DMCA on steroids' gets go-ahead

Update: The draft IP enforcement directive, a measure that critics say would harm consumer choice and criminalise many innocuous activities, has moved one stage closer to final approval

A proposed European Union law strengthening law-enforcement capabilities against intellectual-property violations has passed a crucial stage in its progress toward final approval, having been adopted by the European Parliament's judicial affairs committee (JURI).

The JURI vote had been delayed several times amid ongoing criticism that the directive's implementation would criminalise many innocuous activities and harm European competition. On Thursday, the committee adopted the draft directive with 28 voting in favour and three abstentions, according to a representative of Janelly Fourtou, the MEP responsible for guiding the directive through the European Parliament.

The move clears the way for the directive to face a vote in a plenary session of the European Parliament, which may come as early as next month, according to Fourtou's assistant, Sarah Cuvellier.

The draft directive on the enforcement of intellectual property (IP) rights was earlier set for a vote on 11 September, but was delayed until early November, then until later in the month, and finally until 27 November.

The delays are the result of the intense controversy surrounding 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 month, 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 this week condemned the changes, saying they would dilute patent protections.

JURI would have voted on the draft as early as 17 October, but this session was taken up by an over-long report by David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, according to Fourtou's office. The later delays were at the request of the other political groups participating in JURI, Cuvellier said.

The plenary vote may come in December, but the schedule is already busy and it may be delayed until the new year. It would then fall under the Irish presidency, which is keen to address the issue, according to sources.

Fourtou's involvement has raised some controversy, since she is married to Vivendi Universal president and chief executive Jean-Rene Fourtou, a powerful company whose interests are directly affected by the intellectual property rights enforcement debate. Cuvellier responded that Janelly Fourtou has been involved in intellectual property issues since 1999, before Mr. Fourtou was named head of Vivendi. She said Fourtou had been moved into her current role because she specialises in intellectual property issues.

"This directive does not solely address music, it equally combats the counterfeit production of drugs, automobile and aerospace parts, toys, food, consumer products (lighters, cigarettes, mobile phone batteries, wines, etc)," Cuvellier said.

Heated debate
When the proposal was first introduced in January, 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 in January 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' Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The draft legislation aims to represent "best practice" legislation, rather than taking on board the strongest anti-piracy measures of the member states, according to the EU.

Critics from civil liberties organisations say that large multinationals would be the biggest beneficiaries of the directive, because of its ban on reverse engineering, while street buskers and book readers for the blind would be criminalised.