The online and communications industries are strongly at odds with the powerful entertainment lobby over the issue of piracy, which will be debated by negotiators from 75 countries at talks in Geneva, starting on Monday.
The talks will focus particularly on the problem of copyright encroachment on the Internet. Representatives from the various countries hope to come to a policy agreement where so far individual governments have failed - notably in an attempt by US Congress last year to satisfy the warring interests.
After that failure, entertainment and publishing companies in the US and Europe have agreed to support an international draft treaty proposal that strengthens protection for books, videos, music and information that is offered online. The online service providers, telecomms companies and IT industry claim this penalises those supplying and receiving information via the Internet. They are concerned that legislation will make them liable for pirated material that is posted on their services. Software houses such as Microsoft stand in the middle, wanting protection from piracy for their products, but also potentially liable if their products are used to pirate other software or information.
The problem is a very real one. An astonishing variety of copyrighted products have illegally been made available over the Web by so called ?cyberpirates?. These products have been marketed for personal gain or sometimes released free of charge simply to spite big business. Hitting the news recently we have had everything from illegally reproduced CD-Roms to Hollywood film scripts.
Pirated CD-Roms have been flooding into Europe and north America from countries in Asia, where the copyright laws are less stringent than in the West. The US and China have been tip-toeing around a full-scale trade war, with intellectual property one of the key issues, for most of this year.
In the absence of other solutions the Internet Service Providers have come under full scale attack this year. Some factions believe that ISPs ought to be held responsible for anything illegal or immoral transferred over their service - including anything from pornography to pirated software.
Taking up the banner of big business, The Software Publishers Association has taken several US service providers to court this year in well publicised test cases. The SPA represents 500 software companies in the struggle against loss of business through piracy.
The first step was to ask all ISPs to sign a code of conduct, in which they accepted responsibility for attempting to prevent copyright violations. As of 15 November only five ISPs, all in the US, had signed. Then the SPA proceeded with court action against offenders.
ISPs believe that attempting to police the World Wide Web would bankrupt them. They would have to take on permanent staff to survey thousands of Web sites that they host.
?The SPA is trying to be the judge, jury and executioner of these people,? Robert Costner, director of US ISP Electronic Frontiers Georgia, said. ?They?re pushing the law. Determining the law should be left up to the legislature, not a trade organisation.?
Earlier this week the SPA settled its third and final copyright infringement case out of court. Acting on behalf of Adobe Systems, Apple and Traveling Software, SPA sued US local ISPs Geocities, Tripod and Community Connection, claiming software had been distributed illegally on sites they hosted. However, it has dropped all the suits. It claims this is because offending material was withdrawn, but some observers believe it is having to soften its anti-Internet piracy campaign for reasons of practicality. But the SPA gives the impression that this is a suspension of hostilities only.
Even before the Geneva talks are commenced the validly of the outcome has been put in doubt. US Congressional support for a global deal is lukewarm. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch stated: ?Congress will not wish to be in a position of having its hands tied by international developments on the basis of the proposed legislation that has stalled precisely because it contains so many unresolved issues.?
Analysts and Internet surfers alike fear stringent copyright regulation. Technically, downloading information from the Net to enable reading may infinge on copyright laws. The copyright issue has also dragged the freedom of information lobby back into the limelight.
Many end users, though, are complacent about the problem, regarding the Internet copyright debate in the same light as recording audio tapes (a copyright regulation that has never been effectively enforced). Software manufacturers are infuriated by the belief that prosecutions would never be brought against solitary home users. The issue of making online service providers responsible if their subscribers download illegal material is so sensitive it is not even addressed in the draft Geneva treaty.
Complacency is not just rife among home users, but also in business. A recent survey by the Federation Against Software Theft found that 60 per cent of UK company directors were unaware that they would be personally liable if their companies use pirate software, and that tracking of this software will become significantly more complex with the advent of downloading from the Internet.
In the end, effective action may come from the industry itself rather than from international legislation. Recently, the makers of emerging digital video disks came to a compromise with the film industry, to help prevent users copying whole films on to the high capacity DVDs. As often, such practical actions can take effect more rapidly and forcefully than a hundred new statutes.
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