Audiovisual sector feels threatened by copyright reform

Most worrying, from the point of view of the authors' societies, are American companies like Netflix, which is present in nearly a dozen European countries. [Wesley Fryer/Flickr]

Copyright reform is high on the European Commission’s list of priorities for 2015, much to the indignation of the audiovisual sector, which is resisting the proposed changes. EURACTIV France reports

The European Commission will soon relaunch its stalled programme of copyright reform. The European executive will present its new Digital Single Market strategy in May 2015, which will define the methods Brussels hopes to employ in bringing copyright law up to date.

Billed as one of the Juncker Commission’s top priorities, the success of reforms to Europe’s current copyright laws depends above all on the will of the new executive to develop the Digital Single Market, a sector that should create a significant amount of economic growth in the EU.

>> Read: Günther Oettinger promises copyright reform within two years (in French)

The project is in a good position in the Commission’s work programme for 2015, due to be presented by Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans on 16 December.

Though the details of the reform are not yet fixed, the Commission’s focus appears to be on bringing together the fragmented market of broadcasting rights in Europe. This aim was expressed in the mission letter to Günther Oettinger, the German Commissioner for the Digital Economy, in which the Commission President asked him to “break down national silos in telecoms regulation”.

A fragmented market

Rights to broadcast television programmes, films and sporting events are sold on a country by country basis in Europe. “The European Commission hopes to bring the question of the transferability of works [across national borders] into the centre of its thought process,” said Guillaume Prieur, director of European and Institutional Affairs of the French Society of Dramatic Authors and Composers (SADC).

The disadvantage of the current system is that it does not guarantee the user access to the same material across all the member states of the EU. This is a problem that has particularly irritated Andrus Ansip, the Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, since his arrival in Brussels.

“If I can watch a football match in Estonia, but not in Brussels, this is quite simply unfair,” he told MEPs at his European Parliament hearing. Despite widespread access to the Internet in Europe (eight out of ten households have a connection), catch-up television and on-demand video services from one member state cannot necessarily be viewed in another, where the rights may belong to a different broadcaster.

Ansip is not the first European civil servant to express his anger at finding himself unable to watch his favourite football matches upon arrival in Brussels. “But it is the first time that an inconvenience for a few hundred Europeans runs the risk of being transformed into a ruling that could destroy the rights of copyright holders,” one bitter specialist observed.

>> Read: Mr Juncker, do not weaken authors’ rights! (in French)

The Commission’s objectives have rapidly unleashed a stream of protests from within the audiovisual sector, where many see themselves as the victims of an unjustified attack.

“The difference between copyright and the conditions of distribution for audiovisual works is confused. It’s a very bold move to burden copyright law with the problems of the distribution of works within the EU,” Guillaume Prieur added.

Netflix lying in wait

The European market is structured by country and by language. If films or television programmes are not broadcast across the whole European market, it is because it is not commercially logical to do so.

“Why have broadcasters not developed the European service? Maybe because they don’t see a market! There is no European market, there are national markets,” Cécile Despringre, director of the Society of Audiovisual Authors, explained.

“There is nothing in copyright law to stop you broadcasting a film across the whole of Europe. It is just a question of money,” she added.

Most worrying, from the point of view of the authors’ societies, are American companies like Netflix, which is present in nearly a dozen European countries. Guillaume Prieur believes they could benefit from the European Commission’s reforms by being “the only companies big enough to broadcast on a European level”. 

The modernisation of copyright law is one of the priorities of Jean-Claude Juncker's presidency of the European Commission.

The topic had been broached under the previous Commission, but insurmountable differences of opinion between Michel Barnier, the former Commissioner for the Internal Market, and Viviane Reding, the former Commissioner for Information Society and Media, meant the issue was brought over into the mandate of the new Commission.

The European Commission held a public consultation for the review of its copyright rules, from December 2013 to March 2014, and aims to revise its legislation on copyright in the course of 2015.

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