"...The French are accustomed to paying high taxes on just about everything, so Catherine Tasca probably thought she was on solid ground when she proposed a new copyright levy on personal computers. But as France's culture minister, Tasca quickly found herself in a political firestorm that has rekindled a debate across Europe on how to combat copyright infringement.
Tasca told the daily newspaper Le Figaro earlier this month that she favored taxing PCs and placing the proceeds in a general fund to compensate artists for copyright infringement propagated by computer users. Last week, France started imposing a similar tax on recordable CDs, DVDs and minidiscs, as well as MP3 players. PCs, Tasca argued, make it just as easy to steal copyrighted music, movies and other material. Sales of removable recording devices soared to 200 million units last year, up from 50 million in 1991. Most of the growth is in digital recording devices.
But it's one thing to presume a CD burner will be used to contravene copyright; it's another for France to impugn the PC, the engine of the technological revolution. In the face of such controversy, Tasca had no choice but to back down. "The government does not tax computers and has no intention of doing so," she said after the PC levy notion was first reported. But the outcry in France has revived a debate on whether a copyright tax on computers is enlightened or extreme. Most European countries already levy copyright fees on video and audio cassettes and are increasingly imposing them on digital recording media, including MP3 players and handheld devices.
European governments have implemented the approach widely, backed by the argument that artists would at least be compensated for some of the inevitable copyright infringement of their works - whether or not everyone who buys cassettes or recordable CDs uses them for illegal purposes. The European Union has also declined to take a formal stand, instead allowing its member states to decide whether to impose levies. Twelve of the 15 member countries impose them on recording media. Germany and Greece have imposed levies on PCs, but they are being contested and therefore are not enforced.
The manufacturers of recordable media such as blank CDs and DVDs naturally oppose the levies because they believe the taxes will hurt sales. Other critics feel the money ends up lining the pockets of copyright-protection associations, which often support publishers and producers, not the artists it's meant to compensate. The French levy system earmarks 25 percent of the total funds for producers and sets aside another 25 percent for young, emerging artists. But critics say the distribution of funds is hard to control. "The artists hardly touch the money," complains Dominik Fusin, publisher of anticopyright tax site Vachealait.com.
Fusin says he has amassed more than 30,000 signatures from people in France who oppose fees on any recording media. They may be able to stop the levies from being imposed on PCs, but it's doubtful they'll be able to roll back the ones already in place. Those levies certainly have flaws, but at least they allow governments to say they are fighting the thieves..."