World's toughest anti-piracy law: French high court upholds three-strikes policy

The French are often caricatured as a bunch of laid-back bon vivants who hang out philosophizing about existence. But the French are dead serious about intellectual property rights -- and they're leading the world in draconian anti-piracy laws.

On Thursday, France's constitutional court approved a so-called three-strikes law which would call for the jailing of internet pirates. The court had rejected an earlier version of the law last spring. "France is acting as a spearhead," David El Sayegh, director general of the Syndicat National de l'Édition Phonographique, the French music industry association, told The New York Times. "Piracy is not just a French problem, it is a global problem."
Opponents of the legislation, which include members of the currently out-of-power Socialist party, are outraged by the law, which they call illegal, and say won't be effective in stopping internet piracy anyway.

"Three strikes and you're out is threatened by a whole host of constitutional and procedural provisions under French and EU law," Walter McDonough, general counsel of the Future of Music coalition, a national music education non-profit, told DailyFinance. "In a nutshell, how can the state establish a fair and impartial process that guarantees an individual's right to due process so that they can defend themself against the denial of what may become a universal service like the telephone."

Jérémie Zimmermann, spokesman for La Quadrature du Net, a group opposed to the law told The Times, "It is a very sad day for Internet freedom in France," and pledged to work with other opponents to undermine the law.

Last month, the French National Assembly approved a bill, known as HADOPI 2, which would allow a French court to cut off a citizen's internet access after the third instance of copyright infringement. The judge could also impose a fine of up to EU300,000 ($415,000) or two years in a French prison.

"Freedom is not free license, liberalism isn't the jungle," French Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand declared at the time. The winding development of France's so-called "three strikes" law has been closely watched around the world as an important test of state power to crackdown on digital piracy.

The law, which passed the French parliament 258 to 131, would create a French bureaucracy, the High Authority for the Distribution of Works and the Protection of Rights on the Internet (hence HADOPI), which would handle infringement complaints and issue warnings to those thought to be digital pirates.

The law has been backed by the music and film industries, which have seen dwindling CD and DVD sales amid the meteoric rise of peer-to-peer file-sharing, but opposed by consumer groups.

In April, an earlier version of the law was struck down as unconstitutional before it could be enacted. Undeterred, President Nicholas Sarkozy's government returned to parliament with a new bill. Individuals convicted of so-called "negligence" for allowing a third party to "steal" music or movies using their internet connection -- by using an unsecured Wi-Fi network, say -- could face a EU1,500 penalty and a month-long suspension of their web access.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament, the Council of national governments (represented by Sweden,) and the European Commission held a meeting Thursday to discuss an EU approach to piracy.

"Parliament's delegation has agreed on a compromise proposal that will serve as a basis for negotiations and towards which the Council and the Commission will be able to converge," said French social democrat MEP Catherine Trautmann, according to PC World. She said Thursday morning's meeting was "a promising start" to the negotiation.

Follow Sam Gustin, a reporter for DailyFinance, on Twitter here. Follow DailyFinance's tech coverage here.

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