\Times are tough for intellectual property as we have known it up till now. After years of heated wrangling on the internet and in the courts between the rights of authors to receive payment for their work and the rights of internet users to exchange content, it seems a turning point has been reached. After the SOPA and PIPA anti-piracy laws were shot down in the United States, it is Europe’s turn to lay the groundwork.

On 16 February the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found that social networks cannot be forced to implement a general filter to prevent users from downloading pirated content. The court ruled in favour of the Belgian social network Netlog in its dispute with Sabam, the Belgian company that defends the interests of authors and composers. The judges in Luxembourg have thus confirmed their decision of last November, when they found that the filtering requirement could not be imposed on internet access providers. In both cases, the ECJ ruled that the filtering would violate EU rules on freedom of enterprise and personal data protection.

In late February the European Parliament should begin to study the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which was signed by the EU and a dozen other countries in late January, but which must be ratified by the bloc and by the MEPs. However, this text, initialled with some misgivings by several delegations, is the subject of an unprecedented challenge in several countries because of concerns about the extensive powers it would give governments for restricting access to the Internet in the name of the fight against piracy.

For some weeks now protests against ACTA have been carrying the day in Europe, and especially in former communist countries where sensitivity to anything touching on civil liberties is particularly acute. On February 11, once again, hundreds of thousands took to the streets, from Paris to Warsaw, from Berlin to Sofia.

Their protest was successful. Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania have now suspended the ratification of ACTA. As for the European Parliament, which passed a resolution supporting the agreement in 2010, it now seems to be leaning towards rejecting it. The Commission, which supports ACTA, will find it hard to argue that the legislation is there to protect the intellectual property of European companies. Feeling the change in the way the wind is blowing, the entertainment and publishing lobbies are imploring MEPs to approve the agreement.

The concept of the web as a space of freedom and exchange is emerging as an inviolable right in Europe. The fact remains that the issue of copyright protection – as a legitimate right – cannot remain indefinitely in the twilight zone at the European level, with states enacting separate legislation. If authors are to freely choose what type of licence to grant to their works, whether to emphasise distribution or potential earnings, internet users must have access to appropriate forms of payment. Several systems already exist for global licensing or for payment for single downloads. As highlighted recently by Frédéric Filloux, general manager of Monday Note, formulas that link a fair price to ease of purchase and a vast and up-to-date selection can indeed compete with piracy. Piracy itself will not fade away any time soon, but it may cease to be perceived as a mortal threat to creativity.