Bulgaria Approves Draft Law That Turns Pirate Site Operators Into Criminals

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A draft law that aims to criminalize and prosecute those who "create conditions for online piracy" has been approved by Bulgaria's Council of Ministers. The proposed amendments are Bulgaria's response to heavy criticism from the United States, most publicly via the USTR's Special 301 Reports. It's hoped that prison sentences of up to six years will send a deterrent message.

pirate flagWhen countries are placed on the USTR’s ‘Watch List’ for failing to combat piracy, most can expect years of pressure punctuated by annual Special 301 Reports declaring more needs to be done.

Bulgaria was on the Watch List in 2015 when the USTR reported “incremental progress” in the country’s ability to tackle intellectual property infringement, albeit nowhere near enough to counter unsatisfactory prosecution rates. In 2013, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture had carried out 743 checks related to online copyright infringement but a year later, it conducted just 13 (pdf).

Still, the United States reported that Bulgaria was continuing its efforts to draft a new Criminal Code with the goal of significantly reducing piracy. That would eventually arrive, but not for quite some time.

Bulgaria Promises to Deliver

In 2018 the United States softened its position toward Bulgaria, removing it from the Watch List on the basis that the government would probably deliver. In the wake of that reprieve in 2020, local prosecutors filed just one copyright indictment. In the following year, not a single person was charged with a copyright infringement offense.

That led to a warning in the 2022 Special 301 Report that the USTR would conduct an Out-of-Cycle Review to assess if “any material progress” had been made.

In September 2022, Bulgaria was further criticized in a trade barriers report for “poor IP protection” and as recently as this month, the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator reported (pdf) that these issues are just part of Bulgaria’s “larger rule of law problems.”

To this background, Bulgaria might ordinarily have found itself edging toward the Watch List once again, but last week it took a significant step that will be welcomed in the United States.

Draft Criminal Code Amendments

Just eight short years after the United States reported Bulgaria’s work on legal amendments, things appear to be coming together. Last week the Council of Ministers approved draft amendments to the Criminal Code that aim to protect authors, rightsholders, and state revenue.

“Crimes against intellectual property should be perceived as acts with a high degree of public danger, not only considering the rights and interests of the individual author, which they affect, but also considering the financial losses for the holders of these rights, which also affects the revenues in the state budget,” the explanatory notes read.

The stated aim of the bill is to solve identified weaknesses by upgrading substantive law to counter computer-related crimes against intellectual property. The text references those who “build or maintain” an information system or provide a service to the information society for the purpose of committing crimes. The notes offer further clarification.

“The bill aims to prosecute those who create conditions for online piracy – for example, by building and maintaining torrent tracker sites, web platforms, chat groups in online communication applications for the online exchange of pirated content, and any other activities that may fall within the definition of ‘information society service’ within the meaning of the Electronic Commerce Act (pdf) and which are carried out with the specified criminal purpose.”

Bulgaria’s Response to U.S. Criticism

The Bulgarian government notes that the amendments are part of its response to criticism in the USTR’s Special 301 Report. The fact that Bulgaria has been absent from the ‘Watch List’ for the last five years is down to “specific commitments” made by the authorities, with progress being monitored closely by the United States in respect of Bulgaria’s future status.

The draft approved by the Council of Ministers last week envisions sentences of up to six years imprisonment and a fine of up to BGN 10,000 (US$5,600). According to the draft, there is no intent to prosecute individual users who simply consume pirated content.


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