BRUSSELS European lawmakers rejected the global Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on Thursday, signaling the European Parliament may soon use new-found rights to derail an international trade agreement.
"This vote proves that the European Parliament is definitely receptive, is definitely hearing citizens' voices," said Italian politician Niccolo Rinaldi, a member of the trade committee which voted against the agreement.
The ACTA deal, in the pipeline since 2008, aims to reduce intellectual property theft by cracking down on fake consumer goods and medicines and digital file-sharing of pirated software and music.
The European Commission, the EU's executive body, has supported the treaty, which it says would target large-scale operations which enable illegal digital file-sharing.
The proposed legal crackdown has sparked furious protests, especially in Eastern Europe, by opponents who say it would censor free expression and criminalize people who download files for personal use.
Lawmakers from the 31-member trade committee said the vague wording of the law and disproportionate fines could do just that, which led them to oppose the bill.
"If the treaty is vague there's nothing to stop them (rights holders) pushing those boundaries," said David Martin, a British Labour MEP who led parliament's work on the bill.
He said that a person selling a fake football shirt for 5 euros could be fined 50 euros per shirt if that was the original retail price, which was heavy-handed.
"It is a lesson for the Commission that they have to listen to the Parliament," Martin added, referring to the legislature's new powers to approve or reject global trade deals.
The cross-party vote is a signal the legislature will reject ACTA in a final vote on July 4, the first time the European Parliament would write off an international trade agreement since an increase in its powers in 2008.
Martin said the European Parliament has the authority to ratify commercial treaties, meaning that rejection would preclude any EU member state from signing up on its own.
If ACTA is voted down by the legislature as a whole, the Commission has limited options to pursue, because any revisions would have to be agreed by all signatories to the treaty, Martin said.
"They could just say ACTA's dead - end of story. They could go to their negotiating partners and say let's change some sections of ACTA," Martin said.
"Or they could then bring it back to Parliament, or they could try and negotiate a brand new treaty," he told Reuters.
Politicians in parliament debated in particular the relevance of music copyright.
Amelia Andersdotter, whose Swedish Pirate Party's mission is to reform copyright law and protect Internet freedom, said the European Union should harmonies the copyright schemes in its member states before aiming for an international treaty.
She said it was very difficult to operate cultural services, like the music-sharing website Spotify, across borders, because of differing rights regimes.
"So a 'plan B' for this should obviously be that we fix this problem internally, before we go on and do something else."
Artists, like Radiohead, who have accepted the prevalence of music file-sharing, let fans set their own price to buy the 2007 album "In Rainbows" from the band's website.
The European Commission, which negotiated the deal on behalf of the European Union, has asked the highest EU court to decide if ACTA dents people's privacy. A ruling could take up to a year.
(Reporting by Claire Davenport; Editing by Rex Merrifield and Sophie Hares)