Music industry slams new German law on file-sharing

The recorded-music industry has attacked a law change in Germany which it fears is likely to shelter small-scale illegal file sharers from draconian civil-damages claims. ( dpa )

On the face of it, the law adopted on Friday by the federal parliament gives the industry a new weapon to trace internet users who download music tracks without a copyright clearance.

Internet service providers will have to reveal the names and addresses of pirates whose IP numbers - a kind of telephone number for the internet - are noted down when they help themselves to music.

But the procedure is hemmed in by conditions, which lawyers warn will be tested in the courts and could backfire on the industry.

Following the example set by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the German music companies have been tracking down web users, mostly 15 to 30-year-olds, who download music in breach of copyright. It reports them to the police.

But enormous penalties for schoolchildren and students have prompted a backlash.

All over the globe, parliaments are umpiring in a philosophical debate between the music industry and its critics, who argue that copyright law mainly benefits corporations, not music and musicians.

In Germany, the legal changes implement a European Union guideline and oblige internet service providers to disclose the names of file sharers "operating on a commercial scale" if ordered to do so by a judge.

Germany's main computing-industry federation, Bitkom, welcomed the change, saying it simplifies the complex job of tracing pirates, but the recording industry group Bundesverband Musikindustrie, is not so sure. It says the law makes the task more expensive.

Currently the hunt works like this: industry detectives report the IP numbers of file sharers to German police, who are under a legal duty to trace the suspects.

The police usually only prosecute somebody offering more than 1,000 bootleg tracks on a website, but the industry can demand the police files on the recipients, and has so far sued 16,000 of them for civil damages.

The music industry fears that the new law will block its access to this essential police data.

On top of that the new law sharply reduces a bounty that has been rewarding the lawyers who write cease-and-desist letters on behalf of the music industry.

A repentant file-sharer will only have to pay the lawyers 100 euros (157 dollars), not 1,000 or more as in the past.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government said the old bounties were unfair and irresponsible.

"It's actually going to make things more difficult for us," said Stefan Michalk, the Bundesverband chief executive.

Not only was the law's wording too vague, but the industry would have to argue every case before a judge.

The limitation to "commercial-scale" pirates undercuts the industry's aim of catching small fry and making an example of them.

A debate in English-speaking nations on reforming copyright fundamentals to encourage freer exchange has only echoed quietly in Germany, but the music industry has not been able to push through the tougher legislation it was wanting.

A preliminary constitutional court finding last month could also hem in the music industry.

The federal court ruled on March 19 that police can only obtain telephone-company data to investigate serious crime. So far the court has not considered whether music copiers count as serious criminals.

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