The German parliament has ratified a new copyright extension aimed at fighting file sharing a few days ago. The law was supposed to make it easier for the entertainment industry to get the identities of file sharers, but it's unclear yet what the real effect on the country's millions of P2P users will be.

Rights holders will now be able to get a simple court order to force ISPs to give up their customers names, similar to what record companies are already doing in the US. Simple acts of infringement will however only result in a 100 Euro fine.

Germany's tough privacy laws and a recent court decision against data retention will also make it hard to get the names of infringers in time, since most ISPs are forced to erase such data within seven days. Finally, rights holders will have to front the costs of these lawsuits, making them much more expensive than previous enforcement actions.

German rights holders didn't have direct means to reveal the identities of file sharers up until now, which is why they initiated thousands of criminal cases, resulting in prosecutors sharing the names in question with them. Most of these criminal cases were dropped immediately, but record companies used the names to send of cease and desist letters, complete with cost notices ranging from a few hundred up to several thousand Euros, depending on the case and the lawyers involved.

A hand full of law offices send off tens of thousands of these letters in the matter of months, with some even resorting to bar codes to automate mass enforcement. Most recipients decided to pay up to forgo an even more expensive dragged-out lawsuit, and the money is usually split between rights holders, lawyers and P2P surveillance companies. The new 100 Euro rule and the additional costs for getting the names in question could put an end to this mass enforcement practice.

However, it's too early to celebrate for file sharers: The 100 Euro fine has only been put in place for acts infringement that are not reaching a "commercial level". There is no clear definition for this term, and some politicians even suggested that the mere fact of benefiting monetarily from file sharing because you don't have to buy an album or a DVD constitutes a commercial advantage.

Rights holders and internet advocates both predict that it ultimately will be up to the courts to decide what this law really means. Until then, users will probably just keep on sharing - and rights holders will have to decide if they want to keep up an increasingly expensive mass enforcement campaign.

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