It is less than a year since the European Software Patents law was finally defeated in the European Parliament, after a long and troubling history with the European institutions. This article is about the EUCD (European Union Copyright Directive), the European version of the U.S. DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act). This controversial law aims to limit not only copyright infringement, but also any attempt to counter copyright protection mechanisms, like its american counterpart. While the existence of such legislation in the U.S. is arguably justified by the large corporate dominance of politics, its presence in the European Union is not only alien to the culture of the land but of critical importance to the industry, technology and, indeed, society of the EU member states. In addition to the DMCA, a relatively recent example of the legislatory power of corporations in the U.S. are the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, where by the copyright term for a work was extended by 20 years; the law was passed just when the copyright for Mickey Mouse was about to expire.
In the EU, innovation has not been threatened by legal barriers such as software patents of DMCA-like restrictions. Lawsuits are not the norm and ideas can be extended and improved upon freely by others. There is no doubt about academic freedom with regards to the study and analysis of pratically anything. I guess it is ironic that the U.S. is now lending its ‘liberal’ laws to Europe.
Unfortunately, the EUCD is highly controversial; even more so than its american counterpart. As specified in several digital rights campaigns, such as www.eucd.org and www.eucd.info the EUCD will render any casual copy of owned digital or analogue media illegal: No more copying or ripping your CDs to create custom playlists or store the resulting encoded files into your iPod or other media or CD players, no more lending CDs to friends, no more timeshifting while watching TV, or recording your favourite show for later viewing on a video or PVR, no academic freedom to examine and analyse how things work, no more multimedia playback and recording of proprietary formats, such as DVD in free software such as linux based operating systems. Effectively the law is criminalising practically everyone that makes use of DVDs, mp3s or PVR equipment.
Today, most of the European Union 25 countries have already ratified the EUCD. Only France, Spain and Czechia have not yet done so, but will most probably ratify it soon. In late December 2005, France amended their local transcription of the Directive to allow internet peer-to-peer exchanges.
In the field of software engineering/development, the freedom enjoyed by european developers has allowed for a significant codebase of free/open source software to be created. The lack of legal restrictions such as those imposed by laws patenting ideas (Software Patents) or, indeed, the EUCD made the creation of open source technologies now adopted by european state and federal governments, local governments and small-medium enterprises possible. In the United States, the pioneer of the free economic marketplace, the institutional stranglehold by the few dominant industrial players is now evident even to the most naive observer: the economic and business norms typically involve patent infringement lawsuits; patenting of ideas and even life, in some cases, is allowed, a significant departure from the established policy. Every year, billions of dollars are exchanged between mega-corporations in the process of settlements. It is now part of the business process to apply and acquire patents and subsequently sue others to make profit. Unfortunately, just the cost of authoring, drafting, applying and acquiring patents is prohibitively expensive for a small company, especially when companies like Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Oracle and others do it at the scale of tens of thousands every year. Similarly, DMCA/EUCD apart from limiting large-scale piracy (something fair in the general social context of the western culture) it harms consumer freedom and industrial competition. It keeps small, yet innovative companies that cannot keep up with the million dollar lawsuits out of the market. It slows down innovation and over time creates oligopolies if not monopolies. A basic assumption of a free market is, in my opinion, a fair, robust and established regulatory system. Once the rule of the law is not assured, be it through getting away with breaches of the law or through the corporate-sponsored and partial revision of the law to the benefit a corporation or small number of corporations, the social and economic benefit of the free market is void.
While, there is an undoubted and definite need for IPR (Intellectural Property Rights) protection in the digital era through legislation criminalising illegal and massive infringement of copyright, in the form often found on the internet, the excessive — indeed ‘pathological’, to borrow the term from Joel Bakan’s The Corporation — meddling of power and profit-hungry corporations in the regulatory framework that governs their operation and society in general, is a significant threat to individual freedoms, science, technology, the European industry (that consists largely of small and medium sized enterprises) and society as a whole and serves only to reinforce existing economic leaders in their endless pursuit of profit while often eroding the social structures and liberties we have enjoyed for many decades and that define our civilisation.
La proposition de la loi controversée de brevets logiciels a été défait au Parlement européen, il y a sept mois. La liberté à innover dans l’union est maintenant menacée par l’EUCD (European Union Copyright Directive). La directive est la transcription européenne du Traité de droits d’auteurs WIPO (1996), et la pluspart des pays UE25 l’ont ratifié. La France, l’Espagne et la République Tchèque sont les trois pays qui ne l’ont pas encore ratifié. Si vous êtes un citoyen de l’UE, visitez www.eucd.info svp et signez leur pétition.