Euro MPs want criminal penalties for downloaders

But harmony will be hard fought battle

The European Parliament has asked EU member states to press ahead with a plan to criminalise copyright infringement. The Parliament wants a proposal it agreed last year to be approved by ministers from each member state.

The proposed EU directive would create new rules on copyright protection, and would require each EU country to pass laws criminalising intellectual property infringement. It must be approved by the Council of Ministers before it takes effect.

In the UK some IP offences are criminal, but only when carried out on a commercial scale. The new directive would criminalise offences such as illegal downloading, but only when profit is made from anything that was downloaded.

The directive's main supporter is Italian Socialist MEP Nicola Zingaretti. "Organised crime is a global activity that does not recognise borders or customs... We want to make sure that, all over the EU, pirates and counterfeiters are punished," he said last year when the Parliament narrowly backed the proposal. "It is about punishing mafia-style criminals, not about jailing kids who download music from the internet."

The proposal, though, is likely to face significant opposition because criminal law has never before been harmonised across EU states. The fact that the Council of Ministers has not yet discussed or backed the proposal is taken by some to be an indication of that reluctance.

Zingaretti, who is in charge of the passage of the proposal in the Parliament, has used a written question to the Council to try to make the council consider the issue.

"Given the need for urgent action by the EU in response to the increasingly systematic violation of copyright by some internet users, can the council provide a time frame for discussion of the directive of the European Parliament and of the council on criminal measures aimed at ensuring the enforcement of intellectual property rights?" he asked.

The proposal does not include patents, though. There had been serious worries in the business community that if the proposal had included patents thousands of patent infringing businesses would have instantly become criminal organisations.

The proposal has always been controversial and was opposed by UK Green MEP Jean Lambert, among others. When put to a vote in the Parliament last April it was only passed by 374 votes to 278.

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