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EU Parliament passes piracy bill

Consumer groups protest measure

BRUSSELS -- Over the objections of consumer groups, the European Parliament passed a bill yesterday to crack down on piracy of products ranging from soccer shirts to digital media.

Rejecting claims that recording companies could use the measure to harass Internet file-sharers in their own homes, the European Union assembly, meeting in Strasbourg, France, used fast-track procedures to approve the bill 330 to 151, with 39 abstentions.

EU ministers were expected to sign off on the new rules within weeks. Member EU governments would then have two years to write them into national law.

Under the bill, convicted counterfeiters could face civil penalties, including seizure of property and bank accounts. Specific penalty amounts were replaced by language calling for damages "proportionate and sufficiently deterrent."

Lawmakers also dropped proposed criminal sanctions sought by the recording industry and the EU's head office, although individual countries are free to add them.

Despite safeguards in the bill, consumer groups complained it still could create problems for people who download music at home for private use.

The bill gives intellectual property holders, with court approval, the power to seize goods and freeze bank accounts before suspects can mount a defense. While the provision is designed to prevent evidence destruction, critics worry that it could be abused.

Jim Murray of BEUC, the European consumer organization, said the new rules would "give industry a weapon to intimidate consumers in their own homes."

EU lawmakers and officials insisted, however, that consumers would be well protected. Parliament approved an amendment that said the measures "need be applied only for breaches committed on a commercial scale," and not to consumers "acting in good faith" who download music for their own use at home.

"Contrary to the hysteria, there is no questions 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."

But Andreas Dietl of European Digital Rights, a group that represents 14 privacy and civil rights organizations, questioned who gets to decide when a computer meets the threshold of commercial use.

The EU head office estimates piracy cost the bloc's legitimate economy nearly $10 billion a year between 1998 and 2001.

The new legislation aims to create one set of rules for the EU, including the 10 nations that join on May 1. It would replace the patchwork of national laws that send counterfeiters in some countries to jail and let others walk free.

EU governments will also have to update their laws to make sure trademarks are respected and allow trade associations to take counterfeiters to court.

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