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Lessig on Digital Barbarism

Lawrence Lessig has posted a review of David Halperin's recent book, Digital Barbarism.

Halperin, who authored the (in)famous New York Times article calling for perpetual copyright, has now compiled his ideas into a book. Lessig offers a much-needed critique, including citing misconceptions about Creative Commons (Halperin conflates it not only with "freeware" with software... more

Colombian ruling on copyright: Without profit there is no criminal offence
carobotero · Bogotá (Colombia) · May 15th, 2008 5:24 pm · 24 votes · 5 comments
Palacio de Justicia en Colombia, equnioXio "000_1063" (, CC BY 3.0 (
Palacio de Justicia en Colombia, by equnioXio "000_1063"
In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of Colombia, the highest criminal judicial tribunal and Cassation Court (deals with the Cassation procedures also known in other juridical traditions as right of appeal on points of law), determined that in order to establish a criminal violation of copyright, it is necessary to find if the criminal conduct is for profit-making, if it causes effective injury and if the intention is to cause harm to the right holder.

Judicial interpretation on copyright issues is scarce and uncertain in Colombia. In this context, the Supreme Court’s Cassation ruling 29,188 released 2 weeks ago (April 30, 2008) has set guidelines for "the development of national jurisprudence on the nature, scope and meaning of the criminal protection of copyright".

The reasoning behind the judgement involves the transformation of three key points for the interpretation of the rules of criminal copyright:
1. The Berne three steps test (Art. 9.2 Berne Convention that was replicated by Art. 21 Decision 351 of the Andean Community) is an interpretation issue for the judge.
2. The profit-making has to be analysed as a subjective element when approaching criminal offences related to the economic rights of authorship on Copyright (Colombia’s system is derived from the “rights of author” tradition).
3. The mere use of illegal software is not a crime.

The facts giving rise to this judgement are as follows: In 1999, Mr. Guillermo Velez offered to transfer music from vinyl to digital format on CD-Audio for a price of 5,000 Colombian pesos (approx US$3). This conduct was denounced by the Colombian Association of Producers of Phonograms (ASINCOL) who believed that this behaviour could be a crime against the economic rights of authorship. The computers on which Mr. Velez conducted the format transfer used unlicensed software (MS-Windows 98, MS-Office 97, MS-99 Encarta, etc). The judge in the first and second instance condemned Mr Velez to a two year prison sentence.

The Court addressed several issues on the rights of authors and copyright systems in the reasoning part of the decision. In this sentence, an important reference is made to the system of fair use in the copyright system, and to the model of exceptions and limitations of author’s rights approach; they are explained as a necessary balance of elements of the intellectual property system. The Court carried out an analysis of criminal conduct relating to crimes against economic rights based on the copyright system, emphasising that the legal right protected is the economic content of those privileges, therefore a significant injury must be proven to establish that the action is of a criminal nature.

The Court continued the analysis with two important examples that stated relevant points on the development of copyright following the most recent legislative discussions both on author’s rights and copyright systems (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc.). The Court disqualifies as punishable the format-shifting, and the music download from the Internet when there is non-profit intention: "If there are millions of songs circulating on the Internet, the role of criminal law can not concentrate it’s efforts on prosecuting users that are taking advantage of this circumstance to download music that is placed at their disposal". With this interpretation, the highest court in Colombia is in line with global concerns about a legal framework enabling development and cultural access, as was presented at the the European Parliament few weeks ago:“Intellectual property: consumers should not be criminalised. MEPs in the committee urges the Commission to rethink the issue of intellectual property in order to assure solutions that are equitable for both big and small actors and strike a balance between the respect of intellectual property and the access to cultural events and content. The committee underlines that on the battle against digital piracy, the solution should not be to criminalise consumers who do not intend to make profit out of their actions. Furthermore, MEPs in the committee suggest campaigns to educate consumers and raise awareness of their responsibilities ".

In national and regional Latin American law, the three-step test has been adopted, inspired by the French legal system, while the doctrine has considered it as a necessary guideline for the legislative process when including exceptions and limitations to copyright that by nature are exhaustive lists. The reasoning behind the decision of the Supreme Court’s judgement has transformed this concept: henceforth the judge must take into account that for the use to be illegal under analysis before a court "[it] would [have to] infringe upon the normal exploitation of works" or "unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the rights holder." (the Spanish text of the sentence is here)

This pattern of interpretation has an important background in French jurisprudence. In the case of the Mulholland Drive DVD, the French Court of Cassation established that the exception of private copying on digital environments affects the normal exploitation of the work. In France, the three-step test has been used for a more restrictive interpretation of this exception, limiting the restriction to copyright. In Colombia, the three-step test has been used for the decriminalisation of economically insignificant acts.

It should also be noted that the Court has stated that the punishable conduct regarding software present on a personal computer according to the criminal law is not the "use" but the "reproduction". The court recalls the text or the law as sanctioning not only reproduction but also “the transport, storage, maintenance, distribution, import, sell, offer to acquire the sale or distribution or to provide any title, of reproductions illegally obtained”; therefore the high court highlighted in the ruling that "the mere use of a computer program is not described as punishable”.

The Court address the “piracy” concept as an economic issue where a large scale is necessary, the scope of the decision is not the legalisation of “piracy”. As it is well known worldwide, groups of drug traffickers and organised crime, as the Colombian paramilitaries, are involved in the profitable business of national and transnational piracy. These organisations are true mafias, they meet the profit-making criteria and might be the ones causing significant injury to copyright holders. These organisations are the real target of criminal law.

This decision points out the liberal principles of criminal law that has been vanishing from Colombian law in recent years, with the inclusion of “abstract danger” crimes, as is evident in the criminal protection regarding Technological Protection Measures (TPM). The Supreme Court’s decision rise to defend criminal law as a last resort can be used as precedent throughout Latin America, where the criminal system and intellectual property laws are similar. The Court's main message is that right holders should bear in mind civil actions for compensation of damages as the natural judicial remedy leaving criminal law as the option of last resort because, recalling the title of the work of one of the copyright fathers, criminal law is not just for "Miserables".

The Spanish text of the court`s decision is here

Article by:
Jhonny Antonio Pabón Cadavid (
Carolina Botero Cabrera

tags: bogota colombia policy-law copyright judicial-decision exceptions fair-use colombia piracy

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i think it's a really good news for balanced copyright regime in the south.

claudio (Chile) · May 15th, 2008 5:41 am
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This is really exciting news, and a great story. Hopefully, this ruling will also help other regions in the Global South create more balanced copyright regimes too.
Rebecca Kahn, iCommons reporter (South Africa) · May 15th, 2008 5:43 pm
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Hi Carolina. Thanks for this update from Colombia! :) I have one question though: while the case provided a break-through in the interpretation on the "criminality of copyright" - is Mr Velez still serving his prison term?

Surely the profit from what seemed to be a 'one man show' could not have caused substantial loss to the copyright holders? In this case this is an individual who is serving a two-year prison sentence - when, as you said, organised crime units are profiting much more...
Daniela Faris · Johannesburg (South Africa) · May 15th, 2008 6:03 pm
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Daniela, Mr Velez prison sentence was risen and he is out, he was also condemned to pay a fine of 2million pesos (about 1200 us dollars) that were also withdrawn.
carobotero · Bogotá (Colombia) · May 15th, 2008 6:12 pm
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Ah, that sounds more fair! :)
Daniela Faris · Johannesburg (South Africa) · May 15th, 2008 6:17 pm
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