Government forced to resubmit download bill

9th March 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 9, 2006 (AFP) - France's parliament was Thursday considering a sort of download tax to legalise the copying of movie and music files from the Internet, after an embarrassed government was forced against its will to resubmit the idea to MPs.

PARIS, March 9, 2006 (AFP) - France's parliament was Thursday considering a sort of download tax to legalise the copying of movie and music files from the Internet, after an embarrassed government was forced against its will to resubmit the idea to MPs.

Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, who reintroduced an article in a bill containing the download "tax" late Wednesday -- just two days after ordering it withdrawn -- insisted there was "not an about-turn" by the government.

"I'm not afraid of anything, I'm not afraid of any debate. I want everything to be decided with all transparency," he told France Info radio, though he complained the left-wing opposition was "playing with procedures" to get the text put back on the table.

The contentious text is part of a bill before parliament that is meant to define French digital copyright law and bring it into line with an EU-wide directive issued five years ago.

Drafted by the government, it essentially outlaws downloading and the copying of commercial DVDs and CDs -- except, possibly, for some private copies -- and establishes several levels of fines and prison sentences as punishment for offenders.

The government hastily suspended the initial examination of the bill back in December 2005, when a small group of ruling party and opposition MPs managed, in a nearly empty chamber late at night, to attach amendments to it that would also make downloading legal.

The amendments call for a download general licence fee, a sort of tax, to be added to the monthly subscription charge Internet users pay companies to access the web. The sum, expected to be around eight to 12 euros, would go to a centralised fund to pay artists' royalties.

Villepin's government is deeply hostile to that idea, however. After suspending the bill, it tinkered with the fines to lighten them and then on Tuesday resubmitted the text to parliament -- but without the download fee.

Attempts by the Socialists, other opposition MPs and even a few members of the ruling UMP party to revive the download fee amendments and include them elsewhere in the bill were thwarted.

But on Wednesday, the government, which had been relying on a largely dormant constitutional article to scrap the now-contentious article apparently found that it had overstepped its powers.

The constitution states that "bills can be withdrawn by the government at any moment up to their definitive adoption by parliament" -- but not parts of bills.

As a result, the article was reintroduced late Wednesday -- and the government is banking on the UMP's majority in the lower house and the senate to ultimately quash the downloading amendments.

A group lobbying for the download fee, the Association of Audionautes, hailed the government's forced U-turn and renewed debate on the idea.

But the opposition Socialists said the government reversal smacked of "amateurism" and called for debate to be suspended again and for a parliamentary commission to be set up to fully examine the problem of balancing consumer rights and copyright in the Internet age.

The new situation in parliament creates a possible, ironic scenario under which government loyalists in the lower house of parliament may vote to adopt the bill -- and the amendments -- just so it can be passed on to the senate, where the amendments could be sliced off.

Despite the humiliation dealt to the government throughout the process, many observers predict the bill will eventually become law without legalising downloading.

The debate, however, could further weaken public support for Villepin's government ahead of elections next year.

An estimated eight to 10 million people in France -- nearly 17 percent of the population -- already download copyrighted files without making any sort of payment.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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