The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) recently brought a lawsuit against the Taiwanese peer-to-peer file sharing operator Ezpeer, because it allows its subscribers to exchange copyrighted music files. But on Thursday, a district level court found Ezpeer not guilty of copyright infringement. This ruling surprised quite a few people.
Many had been skeptical that the court would rule in favor of Ezpeer, giving that in verdicts in the US, Japan and Italy, courts have almost uniformly ruled against similar file-sharing networks, including the notorious Napster.
Of course, just because courts in other countries have ruled in a certain way doesn't mean that Taiwanese courts should blindly follow suit. However, the nation's copyright laws prohibit the unauthorized reproduction and transmission of copyrighted work.
In ruling that Ezpeer did not infringe on copyright, the Shihlin District Court specifically stated in its verdict that the conduct of the operator does not constitute unauthorized reproduction and transmission. In the eyes of many legal commentators, this merely reflected the court's basic lack of understanding about the file sharing technology.
Current Taiwanese copyright laws are virtually identical to those in the US, so it is confusing that verdicts on Internet file sharing networks would be so vastly different. Some think that the ruling reflected a need for the dispute to be settled in civil court. In other countries where file-sharing networks were taken to court, the plaintiffs had filed civil lawsuits against the defendants. However, in this country, the case in question was filed in criminal court.
If criminal charges are too harsh for copyright violators, then legal reforms are in order. It should not be left up to the courts to make arbitrary interpretations that are tantamount to a substantive rewriting or amendment of the law. That is a job reserved for the legislature -- regardless of how inefficient that lawmaking body it may be these days.
There is also concern about the potential impact that the Shihlin District Court's ruling may have on Taiwan's image -- which continues to be viewed as a haven for piracy. In the past, the IFPI launched various campaigns against unauthorized photocopying of textbooks in the nation's universities. High-profile raids were conducted by the prosecutor's office against shops that provide photocopying services near the school campuses.
For a short period of time, such copyright infringement was curtailed. But there was a social backlash against the crackdown, and rallies and protests held by students defending their "right" to infringe on copyright laws further tarnished the nation's image. The practice of photocopying textbooks seems to have gone back to its pre-crackdown levels, despite repeated reassurances by the government and the Ministry of Education that the practice would be halted.
At the end of the day, no amount of raids, lawsuits or other heavy-handed tactics will work as well as educating the public to have respect for copyright laws.
Despite repeated promises, an organized and effective social education campaign implemented by the government has yet to be seen -- unless one takes a few government-funded commercials on TV on the issue into account.