Copyright levy for ISPs violates EU regulation, Belgian government says

There are other ways to prevent illegal downloads, the government said

A plan by the Belgian association of authors, composers and publishers to make ISPs pay copyright levies for offering access to copyright-protected material online violates the European e-commerce directive, a Belgian government spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The association, called Sabam, sued Belgian Internet access providers Belgacom, Telenet and Voo in May, demanding they start paying 3.4 percent of their turnover in copyright fees. The ISPs profit from giving users easy access to copyright materials by offering high speed Internet access, according to Sabam.

However, the Belgian government's FPS Economy (Federal Public Service Economy) agency, which has regulatory power, believes that Sabam is wrongly asking providers for compensation, said Chantal De Pauw, an agency spokeswoman.

While the FPS opposes any kind of illegal downloading, Sabam's solution penalizes Internet users and this is against the E.U.'s e-commerce directive, according to the authority. Providing Internet access is not the same as publishing protected works, the FPS said in a news release, adding that there are other ways to fight illegal downloads than posing levies on ISPs.

The FPS for example cooperates with the Belgian Anti-Privacy organization to achieve this, it said.

The FPS has ordered Sabam to stop its lawsuit, but the association has argued that they are operating within the bounds of the law, said De Pauw. FPS has therefore decided to sue Sabam in October to force it to stop its legal procedures against the ISPs, De Pauw said. If FPS wins the suit, Sabam faces penalties of up to €100,000 (US$137,600) per day if it continues its quest, she added. This procedure is still ongoing.

According to Sabam, however, it is for the courts to decide whether ISPs are contributing to the infringement of copyright- protected material by offering Internet connections, and it is up to the courts to decide whether the ISPs have to pay copyright levies, said Christophe Depreter, Sabam's director, in an emailed statement.

Because the Belgian government has a majority stake in Belgacom, the FPS has a clear conflict of interest in this case, he wrote.

"The FPS Economy clearly opts for the interests of consumers in the short term in contrast to the short and long term interests of our country's creative artists and their foreign colleagues," Depreter wrote.

FPS however said its interests are "clearly different" from the interests of the ISPs.

A date for oral arguments in the case between Sabam and the ISPs is planed for 2014, Depreter said.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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