Arts, Culture & Media

Spanish Government Vows Digital Pirates' Days Are Numbered

One sector in Spain has been suffering since long before the sovereign debt crisis: the creative arts. Spanish musicians and filmmakers have long been victims of unbridled piracy — that is, of illegal downloads of their work via the Internet. Spain hasn't had an effective law against such practice. 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 round of that controversy began late one night in December, when Spanish novelist Lucia Etxebarria said she received unnerving news about the sales of her prize-winning books. They were selling like hotcakes. Illegal hotcakes. "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 worst offenders for digital piracy, and its breaking new ground, with books. Pirating them is a new phenomenon, since digital books themselves are fairly new. But there are sites out there now that operate like Napster for Spanish literature lovers. Etxebarria went to her Facebook page and dropped a bomb on the literary world. She would no longer write, she announced. This, from a novelist who's won some of the top awards for Spanish literature, who's a household name in many parts of the world. Etxebarria lashed out against the operators of the downloading websites, and against the Spanish government. For years it had been waffling over 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. Controversy, because the law allowed 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. Also, it would have empowered a special government commission to shut down law-breaking sites within days — too fast, critics say, for a judge to weigh in, as the legislation also called for. But Spain's new government, in power for just three weeks, has taken up the cause, pledging to enact the legislation. 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 down-loaders themselves would not be targeted. But Josep Valor, an expert on intellectual property at the IESE business school, says the proposed law is flawed. He says it requires weeks or months of investigation to determine whether a site is in fact guilty of piracy. Plus, he says, the new law puts the onus on virtually all websites to police themselves against what visitors might post. He says that'd be 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 that authorities can't catch you. While activists gear up for more protests, most artists seem pleased. Even the writer Lucia Etxebarria. She now says she's considering a return to writing, knowing that the government is taking action. Even if its plan is flawed.

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