EU mulls more flexible online copyright law

Internet users in Europe may be allowed to reproduce parts of some copyrighted files legally under reforms to outdated rules governing the murky world of online piracy, EU officials said yesterday (5 December).


Entertainment and software companies, which say they are losing billions of dollars of revenues to pirates, have been lobbying the EU to outlaw all unlicensed copying and sharing of their digital films, music and applications.

The European Commission said it was hoping to find a middle ground that would let legitimate users copy parts of some files – while clamping down on serious criminals.

"The Commission's objective is to ensure that copyright stays fit for purpose in this new digital context," the EU Commission said in a statement.

Officials said they were redrawing the EU's 2001 copyright law, that was agreed when slow internet speeds made it difficult to share large digital files online.

The Commission announced yesterday that a “stakeholder dialogue” would begin in early 2013 on issues that need short-term attention, such as portability of copyright across borders, insufficient legal access in Europe to television and film online, and harmonising copyright levies – the taxes imposed by 20 member states on blank disks or other devices that can copy music.

The review, which will be co-led by Commissioners Michel Barnier, Neelie Kroes and Androulla Vassiliou, will be completed by December 2013. New legislation could then emerge in 2014.

"Fair use" is a concept already active in other areas of copyright law, giving book reviewers, for example, the right to include short passages or quotes from publications in their articles.

Online "fair use" might let people use a snippet of someone else's song in a parody posted on the video-sharing website YouTube, said one Commission source.

"The question is can that snippet be 30 seconds or one minute," the source added.

Software companies have argued against the use of fair use, saying it is nearly impossible to copy just parts of their programmes.

The European Parliament rejected a global agreement on copyright theft in July, handing a victory to thousands of tech-savvy activists who had argued the terms of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) were too harsh.

Young protesters rallied across Europe and signed petitions saying the agreement – which aimed to give governments the power to stop the sale of fake goods – would curb their freedom and allow officials to spy on their online activities.

In a leaked document seen by Reuters, the Commission admitted that ACTA's defeat in Europe signalled the need for more flexible copyright laws.

MEP from the European People’s Party Marielle Gallo commented:

"I am delighted at the constructive and realistic approach taken by Michel Barnier. Firstly, by launching a stakeholders' dialogue to address citizens' immediate and legitimate concerns. Then, by carrying out an analysis of what's at stake economically and legally, deciding if it would be appropriate to revise European legislation in 2014."

Neelie Kroes, the digital agenda commissioner, has been pressing for an overhaul of the 2001 copyright directive.

But Michel Barnier, the commissioner responsible for copyright legislation, has been particularly reluctant to review the copyright law.

Following concerns over financial irregularities and difficult online licencing, Barnier proposed in July a new directive requiring copyright collecting societies to increase their transparency, efficiency and management of revenues.

The European Commission was already defeated in 2007 on the copyright levies proposal and suffered another setback on a proposal for computer implemented inventions (software patents) in 2004.

Subscribe to our newsletters