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Illegal downloaders flourish in France

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In the years since the adoption of the legislation in France, online piracy has increased significantly. Instead of stopping, file-sharers are seeking alternatives to bypass the new law

In the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands, the referee, Howard Webb, handed out a record 14 yellow cards. Nonetheless, the game turned nasty, as the players apparently concluded that Webb was all bark and no bite. Is something similar happening in the French government's battle against digital piracy?

Nearly three years ago President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed what was to have been the world's toughest crackdown on illegal file-sharing. After two years of political, judicial and regulatory setbacks, the legislation was approved last September, authorising the suspension of Internet access to pirates who ignored two warnings to quit. Early this year, the government set up an agency to implement the law. Since then, not a single warning has been sent out;not a single broadband connection has been cut.

At a news conference in June, the president of the agency, Marie-Françoise Marais, said it was "technically and legally ready" to take action. The first warnings would be sent out "before long, " she added. But she did not give a date, and news reports have shown growing unease about the legislation. Even some lawmakers in Sarkozy's party have expressed doubts.

Jean-Claude Larue, the head of a trade group representing video game publishers, questioned the cost of tracking pirated works, after officials of the new agency said they planned to pursue only the most prolific pirates, rather than all violators. He said that monitoring 100 games would cost $500, 000 a year. "That's a lot, and we want to be sure that Hadopi will deal with all the cases, " he said, referring to the French acronym for the new agency.

Meanwhile, Jean-François Copê, leader in the National Assembly of Sarkozy's party, the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, recently said he saw "weaknesses" in the three-strikes law, adding that his position on the issue of piracy had "evolved" since the vote. Copê was speaking during a meeting to introduce a UMP digital policy paper that appeared to challenge the rationale for the threestrikes approach. It states, "Illegal downloading will be marginalised not by restrictive legislation but by technological progress and changing patterns of usage."

Digital music is indeed changing, both on the legal and illegal sides, as Internet users wake up to the convenience of cloud-based services offering on-demand listening, rather than the bother of downloading and storing music in their own computers or MP3 players. As consumer preferences and technology change, some people in the music industry are proposing new ways to deal with piracy.

Some rights holders are keeping the faith. "This is a complex law and it needs time to clear every step of the implementation process, " said Marc Guez, general manager of an agency that collects licensing fees on behalf of record labels. "Obviously, we would have been pleased if some steps were reached sooner than they were, but the major steps now have been reached. "

According to a study by the University of Rennes, unauthorised sharing of content on the web has increased in France since the legislation was passed. That could change if and when warnings actually go out. Unless those warnings are followed up with action, however, they might be about as effective as Webb's cards.

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