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Home / News

Copyright Catch-Up in Eastern Europe

2003-10-30 09:11:10

By Roxanne Khamsi
October 29, 2003
Click here to see the original article

RIGA, Latvia -- Not only can music enthusiasts in the Baltic states buy boatloads of pirated tunes on the streets, they pay taxes on the prohibited material.

And the governments of these former Soviet republics are doing nothing to stamp out piracy of intellectual property. In fact, they profit from it by imposing taxes on them, says Elita Milgrave, chairwoman of the Latvian Music Producers Association. By turning a blind eye to piracy, these governments could hold back the region as it tries to integrate into the economies of the developed world, particularly the European Union.

"The biggest problem in relation to piracy and the EU enlargement in new accession countries, and generally in Eastern Europe, is weak borders," said Raili Maripuu, regional expert for Eastern Europe's International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. "The new external border will be shared with Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, all three of which are notorious source or transit countries of pirate material."

Maripuu added that while the whole EU external border "needs a considerable improvement to make it watertight," the situation is the worst in the Baltics.

A report released in June by IFPI estimated the level of music piracy in Lithuania at 85 percent, with losses to the industry calculated at 12 million euros. The report also gauged the amount of piracy in the country's Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, at 65 percent and 60 percent, respectively. In comparison, the study found that Hungary, another country set to accede to the EU in spring, faced less severe copyright infringement at about 30 percent.

Western Europe is watching closely as eight Eastern European countries -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia -- plus Cyprus and Malta, try to join the EU. The established countries want strict incorporation of EU directives on copyright protection written into the Eastern countries' national legislation.

Francisco Mingorance, European public policy director at the Business Software Alliance, believes that enlargement of the EU will have a serious impact on levels of pirated goods circulating in the bloc.

"The level of piracy in the software industry is about 35 percent in current EU member states and in Eastern Europe the piracy rates are generally twice as high," he said.

Mingorance noted that many software producers hope that the European Parliament will approve a new proposal for a broad enforcement directive on copyright protection. But Mingorance also admits that some Eastern European countries will have to beef up their efforts to catch copyright criminals.

Enforcers of copyright protection in the Baltics face an uphill battle, said Romans Baumanis, the region's representative to the Coalition for Intellectual Property Rights, which has helped coordinate a local lobbying effort for fiercer implementation and interpretation of related legislation.

A person suspected of violating copyright law in Latvia is assumed innocent until proven guilty, placing the burden of proof on the prosecutors, according to Baumanis, who also works as vice president and managing director of the PBN Company in the Baltics. He said that in other nearby countries, such as Sweden, the problem has been judged as serious enough to make an exception and shift this responsibility in cases of copyright and trademark infringement.

Milgrave noted that such cases are currently very expensive to pursue because Latvian law enforcers must provide expert evidence in court on every disk of a suspected illegal goods -- regardless of the number of disks involved in the case.

So far, the Baltics have produced mixed results. Although Latvia and Lithuania have ratified two recent treaties from the World Intellectual Property Organization that cover the electronic distribution of copyrighted works and performance, Estonia lags behind.

"The Internet is global, so it's essential to have treaties which establish the minimum level of protection on a global basis," said Jorgen Blomqvist, director of the copyright law division at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Switzerland.

Toomas Seppel, copyright specialist at the Estonian Ministry of Culture, said although the country plans to ratify the two treaties at the beginning of next year, solid enforcement is more important than lawmaking when it comes to controlling piracy.

Indeed, the software industry is having more success than the music industry at combating illegal distribution of copyrighted material in countries such as Latvia, said Sandis Voldins, executive director of the country's BSA committee. Voldins explained that in 2002 only 10 CDs of music (and not a single disk of software) were confiscated by Latvian border officials, but this year the number of confiscated disks has already reached the thousands. In his view, improvement in copyright protection has much to do with the nation's pending accession to the European Union.

"The EU matters here very much, because the government understands it cannot just leave these things undone," Voldins said.

He added that the influence of organized crime groups, which many see as the primary force behind music and software piracy, has become less outwardly apparent over the past few years.

"We get calls from software users who tell us that Microsoft is already rich enough," said Voldins, who mentioned that people have threatened to deliver dead rats to his office. "But I know that earlier there were some much more serious threats from organized crime. They threatened to bomb the cars of people who fought against pirate material."


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