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Forthcoming EU legislation could criminalise Europeans who circumvent copyright protection.
Fears that the pending European Union Copyright Directive could lead to a European re-run of the Dmitri Sklyarov prosecution were much in evidence during the recent Campaign for Digital Rights mini-conference at London's City University.
But Matthew Rippon, of Ipswich law firm Prettys Solicitors, says such fears are misplaced and that the EUCD will lead to only civil - not criminal - court actions in Europe.
He said the EUCD only requires that the member states provide "legal protection" for use of and information about Digital Right Management technologies.
"Basically the EUCD creates the means for rights holders to take civil action to prevent the removal of DRM. Every legal commentator that I have read on the subject speaks only of civil sanctions," said Rippon.
Rippon argues that the EUCD is quite different from America's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which imposes "express criminal sanctions" against those "who destroy rights management information".
"As a Linux user myself, I am as concerned about the growth of DRM as the next guy, but this hysteria has to stop. Yes the DMCA's criminal sanctions are evil, but we've had pro-DRM sanctions on the statute books for almost 15 years (see Copyright Designs and Patents Act s296) and has the sky fallen in?"
Martin Keegan, one of the founder members of the Campaign for Digital Rights (CDR), said whether breaking copyright protection will be criminalised "depends on the implementation and enforcement in each member state of the EU".
There are two threads to the directive (A6.1 and A6.2), dealing with banning circumvention and the devices which assist it, he explained.
UK laws already ban devices, but there have very few uses of this law.
"It's unlikely that the UK will criminalise circumvention; that'll just be actionable in the civil courts," Keegan.
However "other European nations may be softer or harder on the laws and implementation", he added.
This is ironic since one of the aims of the EUCD is to standardise laws across Europe, but in practice, the directive may lead to greater diversity.
So far the EUCD has received little attention but the CDR aims to mobilise opposition against the directive, which the Recording and Publishing Industries are heavily lobbying. The CDR is also protesting against music industry plans to market copy-protected CDs.
National governments have until December 22 to incorporate the directive in national legislation.
Unclear and present danger
By John Leyden → More by this author
Published Monday 13th May 2002 13:32 GMT