Music authors ‘at war’ with Commission over copyrights


European composers and songwriters threatened yesterday (3 July) to “play havoc” with the music market by withdrawing their catalogues if the European Commission goes ahead with its plan to introduce more competition between collecting societies.

After a meeting with the Commission, David Ferguson, a film and television composer who is also spokesman for the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance (ECSA), said he had “severe doubts” about the EU executive’s plans to ban the existing system of reciprocal contracts among collecting societies.

The ban, which would rid contracts of current “affiliation clauses” and, according to the Commission, make it easier for authors to choose between different collecting societies, would concern the growing markets of online, cable and satellite retransmission of music, not the traditional forms of exploitation.

But ECSA claims that introducing competition among collecting societies would mainly affect the smallest societies – “who represent less mainstream repertoires” – ultimately decreasing cultural diversity in the European music landscape. 

In a letter sent to Commission President José Manuel Barroso, the songwriters threaten to “bring war to the Commission” and call for a renewed dialogue, involving them and the different directorates of the EU executive – not only its competition department. 

Indeed, ECSA hopes that the Commission’s internal market, information society and culture departments may be keener to listen to their positions. However, recent moves by Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy are not exactly considered to be in the interests of music rights holders (see EURACTIV 15/02/08). 

But the EU’s Competition spokesperson defended its decision, with measures foreseen “by the end of July”, although no specific date has been agreed as yet. According to the EU executive, a ban would also be in the interest of authors because it would increase the efficiency of collecting societies. 

While the Commission seems determined to go ahead with this plan, another blow to music authors came yesterday (3 July) as major telecom companies and Internet service providers rejected the idea of being forced to punish illegal downloads of copyrighted products across the EU. 

The suggestion had been thrown onto the table during debates on the EU Telecoms package review, which will be voted by the European Parliament next September. But it could nevertheless win backing from Brussels, especially under the French Presidency, since France is the only country in the EU where punitive measures have been already decided against online piracy (see EURACTIV 10/12/07).

ECSA spokesperson David Ferguson said: "We ask for a dialogue between all the relevant sectors of the Brussels administration, including Information Society, Internal Market, Culture and Competition in order to rethink at this possible decision." 

"Otherwise we could decide to withdraw our catalogues. We can play havoc with radio stations," he said in a conference after the meeting with the Commission. Bee Gees founder Robin Gibb, Oscar-nominated composer Patrick Doyle and French film composer Laurent Petitgirard echoed these claims at the same conference in Brussels.

"There is a lot of common ground between the Commission and the authors," replied Jonathan Todd, the Commission's antitrust spokesperson. "At the heart of the competition case there is the interest of the authors, and we think that as a result the authors' interests will be enhanced," he said.

On the issue of potential EU-wide punitive measures to be applied by Internet service providers against online pirates, Michael Bartholomew, the director of ETNO, which brings together the major EU telecom operators, said: "We are against this. We believe that education is what we need, and we think that such a measure will be very unfortunate and dissuasive for using the internet," he told journalists.

Collecting societies, which are mostly organised on a national level, act as the trustees of copyright holders, collecting royalty payments from individuals and groups who perform their music in public arenas, including on the internet.

Following a 2003 complaint from the digital music distribution platform Music Choice Europe, the Commission sent, in February 2006, a formal statement of objections to the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC), stating that certain business practices enforced by this association of collecting societies were restrictive. 

Notably, the application of membership restrictions, obliging authors to transfer their rights only to their own national collecting society, and territorial restrictions, limiting commercial licenses only to the domestic territory, at the same time as a system of reciprocal agreements between collection societies, were singled out as strengthening collecting societies' monopoly.

In March 2007, CISAC proposed a set of draft commitments to bring an end to the Commission's proceedings. The EU executive decided, on 14 June 2007, to market-test these commitments. 

But on 10 July 2007, a broad coalition of broadcasting corporations and telecom providers sent a letter of protest to Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes, urging the EU executive not to accept settlement proposals from CISAC (see EURACTIV 12/07/07).

  • July 2008: Commission expected to take decision on banning reciprocal contracts among collecting societies.

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