Interview – Cornelia Kutterer (BEUC): Consumer rights online need to be secured

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The legitimate interest of the holders of intellectual property rights to defend those is being abused to restrict the equally legitimate use of content that consumers have purchased, says Cornelia Kutterer, Senior Legal Adviser with BEUC. On 11 November 2005, the European consumer organisation launched a campaign for defending consumers’ rights in the digital environment.

Consumers have rights, agreed. But don’t the same rights apply in any environment, be it on the web or in the so-called ‘real world’? What are digital consumer rights? 

The campaign tackles issues in the digital environment. We fear and we observe that consumer’s rights, which they do have in other areas, are more and more restricted in the digital environment. That is why we call the campaign ‘Consumers’ Digital Rights’.

How exactly are consumers’ rights online threatened?

More and more consumers are faced with digital content. They buy music on CDs, they download it from the internet, they access e-books on the web, they buy MP3 players. In all these cases they are faced with copyright issues, they are faced with contracts which are in our view abusive and they have fewer options to use the content as they usually would expect to do. For example, they cannot transfer content that they bought legally from one music download service to an MP3 player which does not support that service’s same format. Or they cannot do a backup copy of their CD because the CD is copy protected. There are many more examples like that.

But isn’t all that necessary to protect the interests of artists in the digital environment?

We acknowledge that there is a legitimate interest of right holders to protect their content. However what we see happening is that the content industry uses this argument to restrict further usages. And that is is entirely illegitimate. 

Can you give me an example?

One example would certainly be the iTunes music download service and the iPod. The iPod is the biggest selling MP3 player at the moment. However, the file format that it uses is not compatible with other formats. If you have another MP3 player you are not able to use the same music or you have to buy the music twice because it is not transferable. Another example are CDs which have copy protection on them. When you buy one of those CDs you might find out later on that it does not not play on your car audio-player or on your computer. In many cases, the CDs are not even labelled.

Would it not be sufficient to put a disclaimer on the CD saying something like “may not be playable on certain devices”?

Unfortunately so far, labels only state that a CD is copyprotected, not that it won’t play on some players. However, we do not believe that this is sufficient. We think if you have legally purchased content you should be able to play it on all your devices. Otherwise it is a malfunction of the content you purchased.

What if, as a work-around, using my CD player and my computer, I record a purchased CD to another CD. Then I would be able to play it on my car stereo.

That is true, but if the CD is copy protected you need to be a computer literate person in order to do something like this. But these are all issues which are on the technical side. In addition to that there is the contractual side, which restricts users’ rights in a certain way. And there is also the intellectual property side, which increasingly restricts peoples’ options when using the content.

Your website 
www.consumersdigitalrights.org
 looks nice. But surely that can’t be all that you are doing. Are you going to lobby, to look for public support?

The objective of the website is twofold. First, we would like to address policy makers. We would like to raise awareness that consumer rights are under threat in the digital environment. I think our launch event at the European Parliament has shown that we have already achieved part of this objective. MEPs, for instance Zuzana Roithová from the Czech republic, have supported us, and the press coverage was very positive.

On the other hand, the Commission and in particular DG Information Society seems to have abandoned any thought of consumer rights in this area. Until last year there was a high level group on digital rights management, where consumer organisations have participated. This group ended in July 2005 – unsuccessfully, because there no agreement could be found among the stakeholders on the issue of consumer acceptance. Meanwhile another group was started, called ‘European Film Online’, and consumer organisations were simply excluded. We believe that this is not the way you can deal with consumer protection.

That raises the question as to whether it is sufficient to focus on policy makers. 

Yes, we also want to raise awareness with consumers, trying to counterbalance the campaigns led by music and film industry corporations, in which consumers are portrayed as being ‘pirates’. One such example is the Campaign for Creativity, which pretends to be an NGO fighting for the rights of artists and computer programmers, while in fact it was launched by big corporations and rightsholders. We want a more balanced view in this area. 

We want to give consumers a more balanced view of the issues at stake and we want to show that consumers and artists are actually on the same side and not against each other, that they can support each other. We have for example distributed CDs with music which is distributed under specific licence, the Creative Commons license. This music is also available for free download from our site. We have interviews on our website with consumers talking about the subject matter. We have a FAQ about copyright, of what you can do with the content you bought and what you cannot do, and we have, most importantly, a signature site, a petition. We would welcome it if consumers sign that petition so that we can show that the rights we demand are supported by those who use the content and who use the internet.

You launched the campaign on 10 November 2005. Is it too early to comment on the response so far? 

We can certainly say that it has been successful. We had quite some press response. Just lately the malicious code that Sony installed on the computers of consumers who had bought Sony CDs triggered an incredible amount of media coverage in the US. Examples like this show that we are talking about real problems – there is something that must be tackled, consumer rights are indeed under threat under the current legal framework. We hope that the EP will start an own-initiative report on consumer protection in the digital environment.

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