EU countries to clash over copyright levies

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EU ministers meeting in Brussels today (29 May) for the Competitiveness Council are set to clash over proposals to transform the European creative sector by reforming the continent’s fragmented copyright levy system. While France and Belgium want strong protection for authors, other countries favour a more liberal approach.

Last year, Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier appointed António Vitorino – himself a former justice commissioner – to draw up recommendations for a European regulation of private copying and reprography levies.

Vitorino’s recommendations, submitted in January 2013, included proposals to give rightsholders more compensation for their creative effort and investments as well as controversial measures aimed at harmonising the levy systems within the EU.

Controversial changes to local rules

Such harmonisation would be controversial because EU countries adopt different approaches, with copyright levies applied at different rates to different products in some but not all member states.

A February report by the European Policy Centre think tank showed that copyright levies damage the European digital single market, and that removal of them could increase European GDP by €500 billion, or 4% of GDP, by 2020.

Today represents the first official presentation by Vitorino of his findings to ministers in the Competitiveness Council. His report describes the current copyright levy system in Europe as deeply flawed, and a major "source of friction" with the single market.

The meeting is also expected to be a source of friction, however, with two camps emerging on the issue.

Germany's position unknown

On the one side, France and Belgium favour very limited reforms. Preserving regional copyright rules chimes with President François Hollande’s defence of the France’s cherished “cultural exception” in respect of audiovisual services in the context of the upcoming EU-US free trade talks

On the other hand, Ireland, the UK, Luxembourg, Spain, Cyprus and Malta favour implementation of the Vitorino reforms.

The position of Germany remains unknown, but will be critical since other undecided countries – such as Portugal, Romania, Poland and the Netherlands – are likely to decide their positions during the meeting.

Regarding the recommendations made by António Vitorino, the Internal Market and Services Commissioner Michel Barnier said: “His recommendations will constitute an essential contribution towards progress in this difficult matter… Our objective is to achieve a well- functioning Digital Single Market and to enable new business models to thrive and meet changing consumer expectations and preferences. I will make sure that António Vitorino´s recommendations are taken into account in any further steps to be taken regarding private copying and reprography levies.”

John Higgins, director-general of DigitalEurope, a business organisation representing the ICT sector, said: “Ministers face a clear choice. Do they want a real digital single market that would contribute €500 billion to Europe’s balance sheet by 2020, or do they want to fall further and further behind at a time when Europe is already struggling to pay its bills?”

In a bid to untangle the jungle of national copyright regimes and increase EU-wide access to cultural works, the European Commission has long wanted to introduce optional single copyright protection for movies, TV programmes and other audiovisual products.

Linguistic differences between EU member states still represent the biggest hurdle to creating a genuine single market for cultural products. However, the European Commission considers that a more harmonised copyright protection system could help overcome other national barriers - especially in the online world.

  • 29-30 May: EU Competitiveness Ministers meet in Brussels

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