Belgian Body Sues 4 Majors

Watchdog group Test-Achats/Test Aankoop files suit

Belgian consumers' watchdog group Test-Achats/Test Aankoop is suing four of the major record companies for installing copy-control mechanisms in CDs that hinder playback on car stereos and computers.

In a statement, Test-Achats says it is suing EMI, Universal Music Group, Sony Music and BMG over their efforts to prevent consumers from making private copies of CDs, since such action is specifically authorized under Belgian law.

"The majors are not above the law," the group says in the statement. "The technical processes used by the record companies against piracy are illegal: They prevent any consumer who has legally acquired and paid for the rights of these original CDs to make a private copy."

The group says private copying is authorized under a 1994 Belgian law that says authors cannot ban copies of sound or audiovisual works made within a family context. Test-Achats cites a number of CDs released by the defendants that incorporate blocking devices, including Shakira's "Laundry Service" (Epic) and Radiohead's "Hail to the Thief" (Parlophone).

The IFPI counters that the copy protection does not break the law. "European law is clear that record companies and other copyright holders have the right to protect their works through technical means," the IFPI says in a statement. "This is particularly important to discourage widespread unauthorized copying and Internet distribution of recorded music. We do not believe that legal challenges to these technologies have any merit."

The move comes four months after a French court threw out a similar claim by consumers' body UFC-Que Choisir against EMI France (Bulletin, Sept. 5, 2003). However, the court ruled that the playback limitations of EMI's copy protection were "hidden" and ordered the company to reimburse the consumer on whose behalf the case was brought.