The State attacks Sabam

  • Sabam wants to force Belgacom, Voo and Telenet to pay 3.4% of their revenues to authors.
  • The case is in court but SPF Economy is involving itself in the suit.

The process is unusual to say the least. The Belgian State decided to intervene in the legal conflict pitting Sabam against Belgacom, Voo and Telenet. It’s siding with the defendants. SPF Economy, the regulatory body for copyright management companies has issued an injunction against Sabam. It’s requiring that the management company withdraw its fee plan for internet access providers. It was deemed illegal only 48 hours following the summary judgment and a €100,000 per day fine was imposed. “To put it in simple terms, the State is requiring us to withdraw our claim against these three companies from the Brussels Court of first instance”, says Christophe Depreter, head of Sabam.

The case goes back to 2011. The Belgian author, composer and editor company has invited about twenty internet service providers (ISP) by mail to pay it 3.4% of their internet subscription prices. Sabam figures that these companies give their subscribers unlimited download access to music and movies, in other words, copyrighted works, and are profiting from them. They must then pay for a copyright for the right to communicate these works to the public to the tune of 3.4% of their revenue. This would allow the artists to recover 30 million EUR.

Sabam received a notice of inadmissibility from the ISPs, who contest its legal analysis. In May, it decided to ask the court to render a judgment in this case. The claim is made against Belgacom, Voo and Telenet. The arguments are to begin in October 2014, without taking into account the Belgian State’s injunction that could derail the examination of the case’s merits. The manager of Sabam pleads, “SPF Economy forbids any court or tribunal from giving Sabam recourse to them to decide on a legal issue that needs clarification. The stakes are crucial to the authors. The State should not be forbidding us to seek our rights. It’s the court’s and tribunal’s job to decide on these and not up to an administrative authority who, on top of it all, is a trustee of one of the three providers in question” (NDLR: Belgacom).

In Depreter’s eyes, this State intervention confirms the company’s worst fears regarding the sector’s future regulator’s impartiality.  “How can one believe that this regulator, who answers directly to SPF Economy, will be neutral, when we see that this very SPF is currently forbidding a private company – Sabam – from collecting copyright fees from Belgacom. SPF Economy, by way of the Belgian State, is a majority shareholder…”

SPF Economy is denying any conflict of interest. “All we’re doing is applying the law in the consumer’s interest, and it is for the good of the economy. It follows from the 1994 copyright law, as well as the European directives, that providing internet access does not constitute communication to the public (NDLR: thus does not give copyright payments rights). Belgacom is also not the only ISP affected.”

 JEAN-FRANÇOIS MUNSTER

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