European Courts Differ in Internet Piracy Policy

June 16, 2009 07:00 AM
by Anne Szustek
Internet piracy is having a serious economic impact in Europe, and the courts of various countries are on the front lines of the battle.

Internet Piracy: Political and Financial Costs

Last week France’s top constitutional court ruled that a law intended to crack down on Internet piracy was unconstitutional. The legislation would have required Internet service providers to report users illegally downloading and trading copyrighted material; it also would have established a government agency with the authority to cut off Web access to illegal downloaders. According to Reuters, the court ruled that the law posted a threat to speech freedoms: “These powers could restrain … people’s right to express themselves and to communicate freely.”

The balance of protecting personal liberties while enforcing the intellectual property rights of the entertainment industry has proven challenging for governments across Europe, especially in the economic downturn. Time magazine quoted from a letter Brendan Barber, U.K. general secretary to the Trades Union Congress, sent to The Daily Telegraph: “The Government must make Internet Service Providers live up to their responsibility to stem the flow of jobs cause by piracy.”
But to what extent should Internet users’ self-determination take precedence over policing the Web and to what degree are Web sites responsible for users’ actions? Such is the dilemma for 29-year-old Spanish software programmer Pablo Soto. The mind behind Blubster, which The Associated Press reports is among the world’s most popular peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs, Soto is being sued for €13 million ($17.9 million) in a lawsuit helmed by Spanish major record label association Promusicae, which comprises EMI, Universal, Warner and Sony as members. According to the AP, Promusicae believes Soto is an “Internet parasite.” For his part, Soto maintains that he does not control what content Blubster users access, and that P2P can be used to access materials in the public domain.

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Background: Internet piracy hot-button political issue in Sweden

A court in Madrid is due to rule on the Soto/Promusicae case later this month. In the meantime, Soto maintains that if Blubster is held responsible for piracy, by extension so are search engines and ISPs that allow users to find and access such material.

Web traffic in Sweden dropped off after the country promulgated a law on April 1 similar to the one under dispute in France last week; at the outset, doubts were expressed as to its long-term effectiveness.

Sweden made international headlines for its trial and prosecution of the four founders of The Pirate Bay, a site with many links to BitTorrents, small file-sharing protocols that help to speed the download of large files, such as music or movies. The Pirate Bay founders were found guilty; they were ordered to pay $4.5 million in damages and each defendant was sentenced to one year in prison.

The publicity surrounding the case helped to pave the way for Sweden’s election of the Pirate Party to one of the country’s 18 European Parliament seats. According to Wired, the guilty verdict helped bring in some 22,000 members into the party, which aims to reform copyright law.

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