European Union Ministers Disagree on Copyrights

Will the European Union extend copyright protection to new digital media? That question was still unresolved Friday, May 26, after extended talks between ministers of the EU's 15 member nations failed to produce a coherent result. Meeting in Brussels, the ministers have been discussing how best to protect the interests of copyright holders while allowing consumers adequate leeway to use and reproduce legally purchased music, movies, video, and computer software.

The draft of a new law entitled "Directive on Copyright and Related Rights in the Information Society," intended to reach a balance between the rights of copyright owners and consumers, was closely examined on Thursday, May 25. A resolution to encourage its passage by the EU's Parliament has not cleared, however, although news reports have mentioned that a "solution appears near." If consumers have their way, the new law could ease restrictions on the making of copies for private use, a provision objected to by the French minister, who threatened to block passage of the proposal. France has a strong tradition of copyright protection.

In Europe as elsewhere in the world, consumers, electronics manufacturers, and the telecommunications industry have aligned themselves against the entertainment industry to loosen restrictions on copying for private, noncommercial purposes. Digital equipment makes replication easy and encourages piracy, music-industry and film-studio executives claim. Technical protections favored by the entertainment industry include the use of audible and visible "watermarks," copy-prevention "flags" embedded in digital recordings, and "key codes" controlled by copyright holders, which enable recorders to switch on when authorized to do so.

Unless consumers are generally exempted from the ban on copying, all sorts of ordinary activities are at risk of being criminalized, consumer advocates say. They are pushing for a "fair use" provision in the law, which would allow consumers to record or transfer copyrighted material they legally own—making compilation tapes or CDs for private enjoyment, for example. "Fair use" has been upheld by American courts.

A failure by the ministers to reach agreement will send the law back to the European Parliament for consideration without further discussion. A spokesman for the Council of Ministers, the EU's equivalent of the US Senate, said, "Much progress has been done, but this directive seems to be like a house of cards. If you change one thing, the rest collapses." The Brussels meeting followed a similar one that took place in Lisbon in March. "Few commentators expected the ministers meeting in Brussels to agree easily," noted the Hollywood Reporter.