Feud continues over levy on copying devices in Germany

A long-running feud in Germany over imposing a levy on computers and printers has sparked off again after a high-ranking...

A long-running feud in Germany over imposing a levy on computers and printers has sparked off again after a high-ranking government official suggested extending the fee to all devices capable of duplicating copyright-protected material.

German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries said the government may broaden its copyright law to include a levy on all devices capable of copying - and not just copy machines, scanners and CD burners.

Germany already imposes a levy only on devices specifically designed for copying, according to Zypries; in the future, she said, all devices that can be used to copy copyright-protected material should be subject to a fee, with the amount determined by usage.

Those remarks prompted a quick response by the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (Bitkom).

Bitkom said that while it applauded the government's intention to bring its copyright law in sync with new technological developments, it opposed the idea of imposing a levy on all digital devices.

The association said it accepted a levy on devices specifically designed for copying, such as copy machines, but will continue to fight a levy on devices such as computers and printers which are capable of copying digital material but not primarily designed for this function.

The Justice Ministry in Berlin issued a statement saying the federal government had no plans to introduce a new levy. The ministry said, however, that it is keen to establish clear guidelines for all devices that are specifically designed for or are capable of duplicating copyright-protected material. 

If, however, the government amended its copyright law to require manufacturers of computers or printers to pay a levy, that fee should not be so high as to create a competitive disadvantage, the ministry said. For example, businesses or consumers purchasing a printer that costs €50 (£33) cannot be expected to pay a €5 levy.

The Justice Ministry is reviewing recommendations from several workgroups.

Germany is one of several European countries that for decades has been collecting special copyright fees on the sale of analogue copying devices such as blank audio and video cassettes, and more recently, digital CD players. The fees are intended to compensate rights holders for lost royalties from private copying of music, images and movies.

But attempts by the German rights society, VG Wort, to extend the same levy to computers and printers have met strong resistance by manufacturers, including Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Germany's largest computer manufacturer.

Last year, the German Patent Office, functioning as a mediator in the dispute, asked Fujitsu Siemens and other computer makers in the country to pay copyright holders €12, in addition to a 16% value added tax, for every new machine sold as compensation for private digital copying. VG Wort initially sought €30.

The association claimed the Patent Office recommendation would cost consumers in Germany an extra €70m a year.

The dispute has since landed in the Munich State Court.

This week's uproar is the latest in a long fight between hardware manufacturers and rights societies representing copyright holders who are worried about the steep rise in private copying in a digital environment.

John Blau writes for IDG News Service

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