Europe's largest telecommunications companies, the cable industry and several well known US internet firms have joined forces in an effort to change a controversial proposal for a European Union piracy law.
The Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement directive, designed by the European Commission to combat the growing problem of counterfeiting of online music, software and films, proposes criminal sanctions for people found guilty of breaching rights including copyright, trademark and patents, but only if they did so for commercial purposes. The draft will be debated by a European Parliament committee today.
However, Janelly Fourtou, the MEP in charge of shepherding the draft law through the parliament, wants to scrap the words "for commercial purposes" so that criminal sanctions can be applied even when a private individual breaches copyright by, for example, downloading music unofficially from the internet.
Fourtou's suggested amendment to the draft law has sparked a chorus of disapproval.
The European NetAlliance, which includes companies such as BT, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone Group, MCI, Verizon Communications and Yahoo have written to MEPs sitting on the legal affairs committee and warned them of the risks of broadening the directive's scope.
Europe's consumer organisation, the Bureau European des Unions de Consommateurs (BEUC) wrote a separate letter to the committee members voicing similar concerns.
"We are worried that the current European Parliament text would allow consumers to be prosecuted, judged and condemned as harshly as a person making and selling millions of copies of CDs," the BEUC said. "We do not see why a consumer downloading music from the internet to make a private copy for personal and non-commercial use should be prosecuted at all."
The NetAlliance told MEPs of the risks that such a widening of the directive would pose to the future of e-Europe and the internet. "It must be ensured that consumers are not placed on the same level as parties that violate copyright for commercial gain or as members of organised crime," the trade group wrote.
It told MEPs that existing Europewide laws such as the e-commerce directive and the copyright directive "already provide the basis for rightholders to take legal actions against all kinds of on-line infringements".
Meanwhile, the European Publishers' Council (EPC), which represents the interests of print media groups, has joined forces with lobbyists for the record industry, Hollywood studios and some software firms to persuade the European Parliament to toughen the law even further in their favor.
"If piracy and counterfeiting is not tackled urgently, jobs will be lost, many creative industries will fail, innovation will be curtailed and the result will be an economically and culturally diminished creative sector: the economy will lose out, consumers will lose out," said EPC chairman Francisco Pinto Balsemão.
While trying to broaden the draft directive's scope in the copyright field, Fourtou is also trying to narrow its scope when it comes to patents, and exclude them from the directive.
In the Commission's original version of the draft directive, it calls for the inclusion of patents. Industry heavyweights including Microsoft and Nokia, warned that to include patents would stifle innovation.
Intellectual property (IP) infringement is an everyday risk for innovators, and risk assessment is a business decision, said Tim Frain, Nokia's director of intellectual property.
If patent infringement were to be made punishable by criminal sanctions, it would act as a strong disincentive for executives, Frain said.
"Introducing such harsh remedies for good faith infringements would present new risks and liabilities for companies conducting bonafide business in Europe," he said.
"The issue of patents is complex," Fourtou said during a September interview. That same month a debate in the European Parliament on a software patents law proposal provoked one of the most bitter and aggressive lobbying efforts the House has ever seen, according to several MEPs.
Fourtou said she doesn't want the IP enforcement directive to get bogged down in a similar dispute. The focus, she said, should be on preserving copyright.
"Even if you aren't downloading music for profit, you still are having a very negative effect on authors and musicians. Even a young boy who does it innocently causes an economic counter-effect.
"The internet is a new way of living for young people. It would be very good to send out a message to them, teach them right from wrong. If we don't put up a barrier then everything will be grey," she said.
Paul Meller writes for IDG News Service