French anti-piracy bill carries new status for online press


The Creation and Internet bill, passed 13 May by the French parliament, has been one of the most bitterly debated proposals in the current legislature. Nicknamed ‘Hadopi’, the acronym of the new body in charge of punishing people who illegally download files, it has pitted the ruling party, Nicolas Sarkozy‘s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) against the opposition Socialist Party.

While the main focus of the debate has been on filesharing, some of the bill’s articles and amendments directly address issues important to the business of online journalism.

A status for the online press

One of these “plug-ins” to the Hadopi bill is the legal status of the online press. The bill grants “online press services” similar rights to the print press, a move considered by many to be long overdue in a country where independent news websites thrive. Eligible web publishers will, for example, benefit from special rules like 2.1 percent VAT instead of 19.6 percent.

The new law, which should come into force by autumn 2009 at the latest, is also meant to relieve those in charge of news websites of some of the responsibility for content published by users on their sites. It states that a news website boss can be considered legally responsible for reader commentary only when it can be proved that he “effectively knew about a specific illegal content and did not remove it”.

In order to qualify for the “online press service” status, a publisher will have to produce “original content of general interest” that “is regularly updated” and that “is not a promotional tool or accessory for an industrial or commercial activity”. Furthermore, at least one professional journalist will have to be employed. “Personal Internet sites and blogs edited with a non-professional scope” are excluded. On the other hand, strictly online news websites like Rue89, a popular site created two years ago by former Liberation journalists, are expected to be eligible.

Multimedia authors’ rights

The creation of a separate status for the online press is seen by many as a positive development for the press in general. The section of the Creation and Internet’ bill related to journalists’ copyright, however, has been greeted less positively.

According to the law, media groups will be allowed to use a journalist’s work for various media; to publish an article written for a print newspaper on the Internet, for example. Journalists’ unions have criticised a reform which, according to them, has been written to satisfy press bosses. Culture minister Christine Albanel dismissed this view, arguing that journalists can include a clause in their contract stating that they will work for a single media.

Hadopi’s core: Filesharing

Issues surrounding the online press have long been in the background of the debate about the Creation and Internet bill. The core of the bill is the so-called “three strikes” rule that could allow Hadopi to shut down a person’s Internet connection after two warnings, without legal recourse. A blacklisted user could face difficulties in finding another ISP.

The UMP, backed by most - but not all - French artists, argues the bill will return profits to creators at the expense of ISPs, which benefit from illegal downloading (eg by charging for extra bandwidth). Some opponents have sought a complete rethink of copyright, while others have condemned it as a breach of fundamental freedoms. Others deem the bill an effective way to curb Internet piracy and protect artists’ rights.

The alleged ineffectiveness of the law was underlined by an editorial in the French daily Le Monde : “The arbitration and regulation proposed by the Hadopi bill are legitimate in their intent. Unfortunately they are very likely to be immediately superseded in their implementation”. To prove its point, the newspaper listed multiple ways to download material without detection.

The Hadopi saga

The bill had a tumultuous journey before it was approved. In March, in an act likened to filibustering, minority socialist MPs managed to reject the bill by pretending not to turn up for the vote, hiding in the halls of Parliament and then showing up by surprise to cast their vote in a nearly empty government chamber.

Then, on 6 May, a vote in the European Parliament raised doubts as to whether Hadopi will be compatible with EU law. MEPs approved an amendment to an Internet package currently in the EU legislative process that bans the closure of an Internet connection without a decision from a law court.

Finally, the French bill has also highlighted issues of freedom of the press in France. One week before its adoption, an employee at private television channel TF1 was fired for his position against Hadopi. Jérôme Bourreau, manager of the broadcaster’s web development department, sent an e-mail from a private account to his local MP criticising the bill. The message found its way to a member of the Culture Minister’s cabinet and then to TF1, which subsequently sacked him.

Many describe the incident as another example of President Sarkozy’s interference with the French media.