Most of the 15 European Union member states impose levies on the price of copying equipment, such as scanners, or on recording materials such as cassettes. The levy is intended to compensate rights holders for the lost royalties from private copying of music, images and movies.
Members of the European Information and Communications Trade Association (EICTA) including Microsoft, IBM, Fujitsu, Alcatel, Nokia and Siemens, have written to four European commissioners, asking the EU executive body to rein in what they consider overzealous copyright protection.
They argued that charging levies is not the best way to compensate rights holders in the digital age, and that such levies will raise the price of digital devices to consumers and businesses.
"They raise the costs of accessing the information society. Extending an outdated system of indiscriminate levies, invented decades ago, to the digital environment is not the way to provide fair compensation for authorised private copying,'' the companies' letter stated.
Commission spokesmen said the commissioners were unaware of the letter and that the commission is involved in trying to get the rights holders and equipment makers to find a solution to the problem of copyright levies.
Thomas Vinje, a copyright law expert in the Brussels office of law firm Morrison & Foerster, said the commission could initiate legal proceedings against governments in countries that impose high levies, but the preferred response from the commission would be new legislation.
"At the moment there are different levies being charged on a wide variety of products across the EU. It seems to be a natural situation to be addressed through harmonisation legislation," Vinje said.
An EU directive on copyright in the digital age passed two years ago leaves open the possibility for member states to compensate rights holders with a levy, but it does not force the countries to do so. That law has been criticised for bending too far in favour of rights holders, who have lobbied hard for protection from and compensation for copying.
The music industry, one of the most ardent fighters for rights holder protection in the digital age, says it lost $4.1bn (£2.5bn) worldwide in 2001 because of piracy. Its trade association, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, estimates that 40% of CDs and cassettes sold in 2001 were pirate copies.
If the commission failed to react to the letter from EICTA members, it would run the risk of appearing more concerned about its friends in the rights holders community rather than protecting the internal market.