July 9, 2006

"Worst copyright law in Europe" passed in France

Author: Bruce Byfield

The French Parliament has passed what the anti-Digital Rights Management (DRM) group EUCD.INFO calls "the worst copyright law in Europe." Popularly known as DADVSI (Loi sur le Droit d'Auteur et des Droits Voisins dans la Société de l'Information, or Law on Author's Rights and Related Rights in the Information Society), the bill now goes to President Jacques Chirac to be signed into law. However, opponents of the bill hope that alleged unconstitutional maneuvering by the government and possibly unconstitutional aspects of the law itself can still be used to prevent at least some aspects of DADVSI from coming into effect.

DADVSI makes sweeping changes to French copyright law to make it conform to the European Directive on Copyright (EUCD), which is generally seen as the European equivalent of the United States' Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Some of DADVSI's provisions are relatively innocuous, such as its exceptions to copyright for educational purposes or its clarifications of what rights are transferred when a work of art is resold. However, the parts of DADVSI that concern anti-DRM activists are its efforts to prevent copyrighted worked being exchanged via peer to peer software, and its criminalization of any methods of circumventing DRM technologies.

In fact, according to Frédéric Couchet of EUCD.INFO, the original draft equated DRM circumvention with counterfeiting, making it punishable by up to three years' imprisonment or a fine of €300,000 ($385,000 US). The so-called Vivendi Universal amendments, so-called because of the companies that lobbied for them, also sought similar penalties for the writers of software used in DRM circumvention.

Drafting of DADVSI began in 2003 under Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the Minister of Culture in the right-wing UMP party (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire or Union for a Popular Movement). Heavy lobbying by anti-DRM activists succeeded in adding amendments to the bill in the National Assembly, or lower house. These amendments included requirements that manufacturers share proprietary music formats, and that the source code for DRM technologies be released. These changes were disputed heavily by Apple, and caused DADVSI to be labelled "the iTunes law" in some English-language coverage. These amendments were removed when a revised version of DADVSI was passed by the French Senate in May 2005.

Ordinarily, a bill revised by the French senate would be returned to the assembly for a second reading. However, in DADVSI's case, the UMP government chose the questionable policy of evoking emergency procedures to send the bill to a committee from both houses to finalize the bill. It then scheduled debate in the assembly for a few days before parliament rose for Christmas, a move that Couchet suggests was intended to ease its passage at a time when members had personal concerns. Despite this maneuvering, the assembly proposed mitigating amendments that the government ignored on what Couchet calls "innovative" procedural grounds. Meanwhile, EUCD.INFO began a public campaign against DADVSI that gathered the support of over 170,000 French residents and 1,000 organizations, including Mandriva and Sun Microsystems, on a petition.

Returned to the senate, DADVSI was further revised. Although senate members of the centrist UDF (Union pour la Démocratie Française or Union for French Democracy), including party president François Bayrou, had spoken against the bill, UDF members allowed it to pass by abstaining during the senate vote, possibly because they depend on UMP support for their re-election.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin then repeated his earlier tactics by referring the bill to a mixed committee from both houses on June 22, then bringing it before the assembly on June 30, the last day of the session. These tactics were used despite a petition by Yves Bur, vice-president of the UMP and a UMP member, that the government allow another reading of the bill, which would have given the assembly a full chance to debate the provisions.

The timing of the bill also ensured that some UMP members who opposed the bill but were absent were unable to find proxies. The vote was done, as normally, by a show of hands, although Couchet suggests that an electronic vote, which is customary for laws that are either far-reaching or of widespread public interest, would have been more appropriate. A motion that DADVSI was unconstitutional was easily defeated, and the bill was then passed.

Reactions to the passage of DADVSI was almost immediate. "This bill," says Christophe Espern of EUCD.INFO, "was subjected to unreasonable lobbying pressure and menaces from the entertainment and proprietary software industries. The French government and the [government] majority sold the freedom of French citizens to Vivendi, Microsoft, and Apple."

In support of this contention, Couchet points out that Sylvie Forbin, a lobbyist for Vivendi, received the Ordre National du Mérite (the National Order of Merit) on June 20. The citation specifically mentions her lobbying efforts.

More importantly, plans are currently underway by the Parti Socialist (Socialist Party) and other political parties to stop passage of DADVSI or force revisions of the final draft by a petition of 60 members of the assembly or senate to the French Constitutional Council. National Assembly member Patrick Bloche has listed (in French), the reasons for not signing DADVSI into law: they include claims that the government used unconstitutional methods to force passage of the bill, that the vagueness of passages in the bill about criminality infringe on citizen's rights, and that, because the bill unfairly targets the authors of software that might be used to circumvent DRM, it infringes on the presumption of innocence. The petition is expected to be submitted and decided upon by the end of July.

If the petition to the Constitutional Council fails, Couchet hopes that the courts may declare the laws unconstitutional, or refuse to enforce its provisions because they violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

Should all these measures fail, EUCD.INFO is considering a civil disobedience campaign. One possibility, Couchet suggests, is counting all DeCSS users in France, citing the second article of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a main basis of the French constitution, which states that "resistance against oppression" is an inviolable right.

"We lost this battle, but the war is not over," Couchet says. "The wonderful mobilization that has occurred during this battle will, without any doubt, be very useful in the follow-up fight."

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.


  • Legal
Click Here!