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The European Parliament passed a bill Tuesday to crack down on piracy of products ranging from soccer shirts to digital media, rejecting claims that record companies could use it to harass Internet file-sharers. Using fast-track procedures, the European Union assembly, meeting in Strasbourg, France, voted 330 to 151 with 39 abstentions to pass the measure. EU ministers were expected to sign off on the new rules against counterfeiting in the next few weeks. Member EU governments would then have two years to write them into national law. Under the bill, counterfeiters could face civil penalties, including seizure of property and bank accounts, if they were found guilty by national courts. Proposals for criminal sanctions were dropped from an earlier version over the objections of the recording industry and the EU’s head office. But consumer groups cried foul anyway, arguing that safeguards in the bill, including privacy protection, were not strong enough and could still lead to problems for those people downloading music at home for private use. Andreas Dietl of the European Digital Rights group, which represents 14 privacy and civil rights organizations, said the directive included “draconian” measures similar to those in the 1998 U.S. copyright law. Those include court-ordered searches of people’s homes and seizure of their computers if there was a claim by record companies or other copyright holders that people were illegally copying their products, he said. “Who decides a computer is for commercial use?” he said. The Recording Industry Association of America has filed more than 700 copyright infringement lawsuits against individuals since September under the U.S. law. In many cases those sued have agreed to pay thousands of dollars to settle. Jim Murray from BEUC, the European consumer organization, said the new rules would “give industry a weapon to intimidate consumers in their own home.” EU lawmakers and officials insisted, however, that consumers would be well protected under the new rules. An amendment passed by the parliament said the measures “need be applied only for breaches committed on a commercial scale” and should not apply to consumers “acting in good faith” who download music for their own use at home. “Contrary to the hysteria, there is no question of dawn raids on teenagers in their homes,” said British Socialist Arlene McCarthy. EU Internal Market Commissioner Frits Bolkestein said the aim was “keeping the emphasis on catching the ‘big fish’ rather than the ‘tiddlers’ who commit relatively harmless acts like downloading a couple of tracks off the Internet for their own use.” The EU head office estimates piracy cost the bloc’s legitimate economy some 8 billion euro (US$9.9 billion) a year between 1998 and 2001. “Europe cannot compete as a knowledge-based economy if its creative sector is plagued with the illegal activity,” said a statement from the Anti-Piracy Coalition, a broad industry lobbying group, including record and movie makers. EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner David Byrne said safety, public security and jobs would be threatened if the EU assembly did not back the compromise bill brokered by EU governments and EU lawmakers earlier this year. The main traffickers in counterfeit products are organized crime, posing a “genuine threat to public order,” Byrne said. Police also believe terrorist groups are using pirated goods to finance their activities. The new legislation aims to create one set of rules for the entire EU, including the 10 nations that are to join on May 1. It would replace the patchwork of national laws across the EU, where in some countries counterfeiters are sent to jail while in others they walk free. The rules will deal specifically with violations of copyrights and patents such as illegally copied DVDs, CDs and medicinal products like Viagra. EU governments will also have to take action to make sure authenticity trademarks are respected, allowing trade associations to take counterfeiters to court. Violators will also have to foot the bill for removing fake products from the market. Plans to introduce specific fines — set at double the amount counterfeiters should have paid copyright holders — were changed to damages “proportionate and sufficiently deterrent.” Francisco Mingorance, policy director at the Washington-based Business Software Alliance, a group that represents giants such as Microsoft, Intel and Apple, said its members lost close to US$3 billion last year in Europe due to piracy. He described the directive as “an important first step,” adding “we did not necessarily get the remedies we were hoping for.” Bolkestein noted it set minimum standards only. “The directive will not prevent member states from applying criminal sanctions if they wish to,” he said. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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