Protesters target anti-piracy directive

As the controversial Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive heads into the European Parliament, citizens' rights groups are calling for amendments to limit the law's scope

Civil-liberties groups are engaging in a last-minute attempt to alter a controversial intellectual-property law that they claim would lead to a flood of frivolous lawsuits against consumers and small businesses.

"Intellectual property: enforcing the rights, measures and procedures", known as the Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive, passed through the European Parliament's judicial affairs committee (JURI) last month and is scheduled for a parliamentary debate on Monday. The parliament will vote on the directive on Tuesday, in the last chance for MEPs to introduce amendments before the directive is approved by ministers on Thursday. If approved, member states would have two years to incorporate the directive's provisions into national laws.

The directive is primarily aimed at cracking down on organised piracy and counterfeiting in the EU, which is a growing problem. Critics, however, say its scope has been broadened to cover not just piracy for commercial purposes, but also involuntary acts or those committed by individuals without commercial intent or impact.

The law would also allow large companies to use draconian legal measures to threaten and harass smaller competitors, for example, by raiding their premises, seizing evidence and freezing bank accounts in highly technical patent infringement cases, according to UK civil-rights group the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR).

A coalition of citizen- and consumer-rights groups, including FIPR, is calling for MEPs to support a collection of amendments that it claims will place appropriate limitations on the directive. More than 100 MEPs have already pledged to support the amendments, proposed by MEP Marco Cappato and the parliamentary groups Green/EFA, GUE and EDD, according to FIPR.

Amendment supporters are planning to meet in front of the parliament building in Strasbourg on Monday afternoon to discuss their concerns with MEPs. The group also called for citizens to urge their MEPs to support the amendments.

FIPR's Ian Brown, director of the coalition, said the directive must be limited in order to serve the interests of EU citizens and rights holders. "Otherwise it will lead to a flood of lawsuits against small businesses and consumers that will discredit European law in this area," he said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Business Software Alliance, which has been fighting to broaden the directive's scope and penalties, recently said stronger enforcement was needed to curb the activities of criminal gangs, citing research that it says shows 37 percent of the software in use in Western European businesses is illegal. Reducing the UK's software piracy rate from 25 percent to 15 percent would add £10bn to the country's gross domestic product, £2.5bn in tax revenues and 40,000 IT jobs, according to IDC figures quoted by the BSA.

The European recording industry association, the IFPI, has criticised the directive as not going far enough to crack down on piracy, since its measures are not as harsh as those in some member states.