A new copyright law designed to curb the unauthorized exchange of music, film and software on the Internet went into force in Britain on Friday, reigniting the debate on the proper way to tackle rampant digital piracy.
The law, drafted by the UK's Patent Office, is modeled on the controversial EU Copyright Directive, broad legislation designed to protect content makers from the growing phenomenon of digital piracy that has ravaged media and software companies.
The UK joins Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece and Italy in ratifying the legislation whose deadline for adoption passed ten months ago. It remains in limbo in the other nine member states, legal experts following the directive told Reuters on Friday. "It's unfortunate, but at least it's moving forward," Francisco Mingorance, director of public policy for software trade body the Business Software Alliance, said of the delays.
Consumer protection groups, legal experts and industry officials differ on how to stop piracy while preserving consumer rights in an era where all manner of protected works are just a click of a button away.
Content makers have sought harsh penalties for downloading copyrighted materials off Internet file-sharing networks such as Kazaa or "burning" songs onto blank compact discs, saying it is a form of theft.
Civil liberty advocates, meanwhile, have urged law makers to adopt new laws that protect consumer freedoms, many of which are written into law in the form of "fair use" exceptions for protected works.
In some countries, including Germany, consumers are permitted to make back-up copies of a purchased CD, for example. In the UK, however, no such "fair use" provision exists.
The EU directive failed to get member countries to agree on a single set of "fair use" exceptions, setting the stage for a mishmash of laws governing how consumers can store and play media and software on their PCs or other digital devices.
"The national governments could never agree," said Mingorance, whose trade group represents top software firms Microsoft Corp and Apple Computer Inc.
The EU also gave the individual country the right to decide on how to treat new digital rights management technologies that, for example, would prevent consumers from copying compact discs or DVDs. The UK affords new protections to such technologies.
The UK has adopted what many consider to be Europe's toughest digital copyright law, seeking to protect a media industry that exports many of its works to overseas audiences.
Struan Robertson, an IT and e-commerce lawyer for the law firm Masons, posted a statement on legal Web site www.out-law.com
earlier this month accusing the new UK law of being too broad, one that could imprison music fans who download works off free file-sharing, or peer-to-peer (P2P) networks.
"The law on the provision of P2P services was ambiguous before and it remains ambiguous," he said. "But those using the services in this country are facing a new threat."
A spokesman for the UK Patent Office said the law is not designed to imprison or fine individual file-sharers.
"This law is aimed at the most dangerous activity, the organized crime gangs with warehouses of pirated materials," said UK Patent Office spokesman, Jeremy Philpott. "It is not meant to bring criminal charges to individual downloaders."
He added individual downloaders would still be subject to civil penalties, which would include injunctions and or a demand of payment for damages. They would not be hit with prison term or fines, he said.