Swiss Copyright Law Proposals: Good News for Pirates, Bad For Pirate Sites

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As Switzerland tries to amend copyright law in a way that will appease copyright holders without alienating the public, a new draft compromise is on the table. While it will remain legal for people to download or stream pirated content privately, webhosts will be required to reject pirate sites while operating a takedown, staydown mechanism. Site-blocking will not be allowed, however.

While Switzerland sits geographically in the heart of Europe, the country is not part of the European Union, meaning that its copyright laws are often out of touch with those of the countries encircling it.

For years this has meant heavy criticism from the United States, whose trade representative has put Switzerland on the Watch List, citing weaknesses in the country’s ability to curb online copyright infringement.

“The decision to place Switzerland on the Watch List this year is premised on U.S. concerns regarding specific difficulties in Switzerland’s system of online copyright protection and enforcement,” the USTR wrote in 2016.

Things didn’t improve in 2017. Referencing the so-called Logistep Decision, which found that collecting infringers’ IP addresses is unlawful, the USTR said that Switzerland had effectively deprived copyright holders of the means to enforce their rights online.

All of this criticism hasn’t fallen on deaf ears. For the past several years, Switzerland has been deeply involved in consultations that aim to shape future copyright law. Negotiations have been prolonged, however, with the Federal Council aiming to improve the situation for creators without impairing the position of consumers.

A new draft compromise tabled Wednesday is somewhat of a mixed bag, one that is unlikely to please the United States overall but could prove reasonably acceptable to the public.

First of all, people will still be able to ‘pirate’ as much copyrighted material as they like, as long as that content is consumed privately and does not include videogames or software, which are excluded. Any supposed losses accrued by the entertainment industries will be compensated via a compulsory tax of 13 Swiss francs ($13), levied on media playback devices including phones and tablets.

This freedom only applies to downloading and streaming, meaning that any uploading (distribution) is explicitly ruled out. So, while grabbing some streaming content via a ‘pirate’ Kodi addon is just fine, using BitTorrent to achieve the same is ruled out.

Indeed, rightsholders will be able to capture IP addresses of suspected infringers in order to file a criminal complaint with authorities. That being said, there will no system of warning notices targeting file-sharers.

But while the authorization of unlicensed downloads will only frustrate an already irritated United States, the other half of the deal is likely to be welcomed.

Under the recommendations, Internet services will not only be required to remove infringing content from their platforms, they’ll also be compelled to prevent that same content from reappearing. Failure to comply will result in prosecution. It’s a standard that copyright holders everywhere are keen for governments to adopt.

Additionally, the spotlight will fall on datacenters and webhosts that have a reputation for being popular with pirate sites. It’s envisioned that such providers will be prevented from offering services to known pirate sites, with the government clearly stating that services with piracy at the heart of their business models will be ripe for action.

But where there’s a plus for copyright holders, the Swiss have another minus. Previously it was proposed that in serious cases authorities should be able to order the ISP blocking of “obviously illegal content or sources.” That proposal has now been dropped, meaning no site-blocking will be allowed.

Other changes in the draft envision an extension of the copyright term from 50 to 70 years and improved protection for photographic works. The proposals also feature increased freedoms for researchers and libraries, who will be able to use copyrighted works without obtaining permission from rightsholders.

Overall the proposals are a pretty mixed bag but as Minister of Justice Simonetta Sommaruga said Wednesday, if no one is prepared to compromise, no one will get anything.

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