In Spain, legislation to crack down on online piracy draws protests

The World

The creative arts sector in Spain began suffering long before the sovereign debt crisis that has roiled Spain.

Spanish musicians and filmmakers have long been victims of illegal downloads of their work via the Internet. Americans who visit Wikipedia and Reddit today are greeted with messages describing those sites disdain for SOPA and PIPA, but in Spain the government is moving forward with its own efforts to curb online piracy. The two proposals share some common tactics, but come from very different places.

Spain hasn’t ever had an effective law against online piracy. Now, even writers are starting to complain that their books are being pirated. So Spain’s come up with a law, but its generating controversy, too.

The latest controversy erupted one night in December, when Spanish novelist Lucia Etxebarria said she received news about the sales of her prize-winning books. They were selling like hotcakes. But she wasn't benefitting.

“I learned that I have the dubious honor of being among the top writers in Spanish in the world whose works are illegally sold and downloaded online,” she told Spanish TV recently. “I was furious.”

Spain is among the world’s havens for digital piracy, and it's breaking new ground, with books. Pirating them is a new phenomenon, because digital books are fairly new.

Spanish literature lovers can now find several sites serving as a sort of Napster for the Spanish book world. Etxebarria went to her Facebook page and dropped a bomb on the literary world. She, a novelist who’s won some of the top awards for Spanish literature, and a household name in parts of the world, would no longer write, she announced.

Etxebarria lashed out against the operators of the downloading websites, and against the Spanish government. For years it has failed to decide how to crack down on Internet piracy. Just before Etxebarria’s decision, the government failed to pass a law making it easier to shut down illegal download sites.

Outgoing socialist Prime Minister Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero told Spanish radio that he tabled the legislation, after seeing how much controversy it was stirring up among Internet activists.

The proposed law allows authorities to go after not only sites offering copyrighted material for downloading, but also file sharing — or peer to peer — sites that don’t actually host the materials. It also would empower a special government commission to shutter violating sites within days — too fast, critics say, for a judge to weigh in.

But Spain’s new government, in power just three weeks, has taken up the cause, pledging to enact the bill. Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s new minister for culture, Jose Ignacio Wert, said last week that Spain’s digital pirates’ days are numbered.

“The government will go after anyone and everyone making money off of other people’s creations without permission,” he told reporters. He emphasized that downloaders themselves would not be targeted.

Josep Valor, an expert on intellectual property at the IESE business school, said the proposed law is flawed. He said it requires weeks or months of investigation to determine whether a site is in fact guilty of piracy. Plus, he said, the new law puts the onus on virtually all websites to police themselves against what visitors might post. He said that’d impossible.

“Even if you are a newspaper, or a radio station,” he said in a telephone interview, “and people just write comments, and some of these comments are in fact links, then you are liable for those things?”

Spain’s Internet activists see an even more basic flaw with Spain’s legislation — or any for that matter that seeks to stem the free flow of information online. Victor Domingo, president of the Spanish Association of Internet Users, said digital copies are invisible, and their worth can’t be measured like traditional products.

“If I steal a sausage from you, you no longer have it,” he told Spanish TV. “But if I make a digital copy of something digital of yours, then we both have it. The problem is that the culture industry is based on physical products, for example, books.”

Domingo said the digital reality destroys the old paradigm.

“Instead of accepting that,” he said, “the industry is trying pass a law that tramples on our rights.”

Some Internet activists believe they have a right to share intellectual property online even if it’s copyrighted. They say they won’t give up their struggle to keep the Internet free of restrictions.

One Spanish website, for example, posts videos on how to upload copyrighted material while hiding your own identity, so authorities can’t catch you.

While activists gear up for more protests, artists seem pleased. Even Etxebarria. She said she’s considering a return to writing, knowing the government is taking action.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.