EU sings to big music's copyright tune

Making a song and dance of it won the music industry almost exactly what it wanted from a vote on European copyright law taken in Strasbourg Wednesday.

The European Parliament voted on a new directive which will become the yardstick by which the 15 countries of the Union will set new national laws on copyright that take account of digital and online technologies.

Some of the biggest names in music visited the European Parliament for the vote. "The future of authors and musicians will be affected by this directive," said Sir George Martin, best known as the record producer of The Beatles. Reacting to the vote, Jay Berman, chairman of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry said, "We feel this is a workable proposal."

ISPs (Internet service providers) also gave the directive a muted welcome. Their main concern was that the Parliament wanted to restrict temporary technical copying, which allows ISPs to copy a popular item and offer it from their own server, rather than have its subscribers all downloading the material from its source.

"This was proposed in the first reading by the European Parliament. We are delighted it has not been adopted, as this would have slowed the Internet down enormously," said Joe McNamee, spokesman for EuroISPA, the service providers' European association.

But critics argue that the directive fails to strike a balance between rights holders like Sir George Martin and consumers. They argue that so much copyright protection will only stifle the Internet's main attribute -- its openness.

"It swings far too far in favor of copyright holders," said Thomas Vinje, a partner at U.S. law firm Morrison & Foerster and a copyright expert for 16 years. M&F represents Internet and IT companies including Yahoo Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

The shift in favor of the rights holder will have negative consequences for the Internet. "With this directive, we are moving from an open model of the Internet to a publishers' model," said Vinje. "It will allow the largest rights holders to gain greater control over the digital dissemination oftheir material."

The text the parliamentarians agreed to Wednesday does allow an exemption from copyright law for private copies, so people can record their favorite TV show to watch later, or copy a CD to a cassette tape to listen to in the car.

But Vinje warns that this freedom we take for granted today may not amount to much if rights holders develop technological means to prevent such innocent copying. "The directive does not adequately limit rights holders from developing technological ways that would render the exemption for private copying obsolete," he said.

Jim Murray, director of the European consumers organization BEUC said he was disappointed with the vote in the European Parliament. "Private copying will be more restricted in Europe than it is in the U.S.," he said. "The directive gives the big companies that own the rights the opportunity to limit consumers' freedom to make private copies for free. The likely effect of it is that, in future, consumers will have to pay a small charge for making a copy of a CD or a film," Murray added.

Bertelsmann AG, one of the biggest rights holders in music and film, and also an alliance partner with Napster Inc., welcomed Wednesday's vote in the European Parliament. A spokeswoman said it is a "good compromise." She added the vote doesn't affect Napster directly. "There are no consequences on Napster because there is no business model for Napster (in Europe) yet," she said. Bertelsmann has lent Napster US$50 million.

On Monday, a U.S. appeals court ruled that Napster can be held liable for enabling copyright-protected recordings to be swapped over the Internet.

Enrico Boselli, the parliamentarian who led the European debate on the copyright directive said, "What happened to Napster in the U.S. is what is going to happen in Europe as well,'' at a news conference. "The illegal use of works subject to copyright is banned.''Vinje isn't calling for Napster's practises to be legalized. "I am a strong supporter of copyright protection. It is essential to creativity," he said, but added that in the Internet age "if you are too protective of copyright, you stifle new creation."

The European Parliament's amendments to the directive are likely to be approved by the EU's other lawmaking body, the council of national government ministers, in the spring. Member states will then have around 18 months to transpose the text into their national laws.

Critics fear the debate at national level will be equally lopsided in favor of the rights holders, because of the powerful lobbying being done largely by the recording industry. "Those few companies have poured millions into their lobbying effort. They have succeeded in pulling the wool over people's eyes," said Vinje.

The European Commission welcomed Wednesday's vote. "The rapid implementation of this directive will facilitate the development of electronic commerce and so increase the competitiveness of the European economy," said commissioner in charge of the internal market Frederik Bolkestein.

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