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France: All your books are belong to us

Pirate Party, Free Software bods, authors in IP land-grab fight

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If the phrase "digital pirate" conjures up a lone socially challenged male with a large collection of Manga comics and Cory Doctorow ravings, think again. Some of the biggest "pirates" in the world are nation states.

Last week France passed a law that permits the state to seize authors' rights on out-of-print books published before 2001. Scribes have just six months to opt-out, or lose their moral rights and the ability to determine a price for their work.

It's essentially a Compulsory Purchase Order for intellectual property - the author's work is no longer their own. Ownership is instead transferred to a quango answering to the French Ministry of Culture, which is authorised to make it digitally available. Publishers are the big beneficiaries.

The law has united copyright groups with the free software movement and Pirate Party in opposition.

Since the law applies to British authors and illustrators who have been published in France, it's likely to draw fierce protest. Ironically France prides itself as the home of creators' rights - and pioneered moral rights - or droit d'auteur as they call them.

The land grab is so brazen that even the French Pirate Party has come out fighting against it.

"And they call us pirates?" asked Marcel Baptiste, secretary of the Party in a blogpost [French - English].

"We are all united with the authors, artists and all those who are regularly ripped off by middlemen," he added.

The state, of course, is a middleman with unique characteristics: it can enforce its seizures of individual property with its monopoly on violence. Which makes it a uniquely powerful foe. And the French Free Software movement, recognising the freedoms of software libre depend on strong copyright, has called it "legalised piracy".

More intricacies of the law are explained at the (British) Authors Rights blog, here - and you can read the law itself in French, here.

There's a warning here for bureaucrats who dream of appropriating private property on behalf of the state - such as our own Office of Intellectual Property Obliteration [debate].

A law that provokes a blowback so strong it unites authors and the Pirate Party is very unusual indeed. Expect this to get even feistier. ®

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