EU pushes for single online music licensing

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A pan-European or ‘multi-territory’ licensing system for online music and films is gaining momentum as the Spanish EU Presidency intends to tackle digital copyright and online piracy in 2010.

Digital rights management is high on the new Spanish Presidency’s agenda and will likely be discussed by the EU’s 27 telecoms ministers at their meeting in Madrid in May, EURACTIV has learnt. 

The European Commission has been discussing the introduction of a controversial pan-European licensing system since Viviane Reding took her post as EU commissioner for the information society in 2004. The EU executive stated its intentions in black and white for the first time in an October 2009 reflection paper

One-stop license shopping 

This week, industry and consumer groups submitted their responses to an EU paper entitled ‘Creative Content in a European Digital Single Market: Challenges for the Future’. 

In the paper, the Commission expresses the fear that Europe’s response to online copyright and piracy will result in “contradictory national initiatives” harming the bloc’s competitiveness and cultural heritage. 

If the Commission gets its way, national collecting societies that manage the rights of online content will have to integrate their systems, a prospect some societies have been dreading since the idea was first flagged in the 1990s. 

In practice, online music shops such as iTunes or Amazon will be able to access the tracks and CDs of European artists in one fell swoop, outsmarting conflicting national legislation and collective societies. 

Currently the author of a single work must have a separate copyright agreement on the piece in each of the 27 member states, leading to additional rights management costs. Moreover, users are often prevented from accessing content whose rights are managed in a different country. 

According to the October paper, the Commission could merge two existing copyrights into one – those of reproduction and performance. These rights are typically bought by online services that provide downloads and streamed content. 

A ‘one-stop shop’, the executive’s more ambitious plan, would allow content providers to buy a license that covers the whole production chain of rights, which can include multiple authors, composers, music publishers, producers and recording artists. 

The October reflection paper, which is a joint effort by the Commission’s info society and internal market departments, will be shared by the new commissioner for the digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, and the new commissioner for the internal market, Michel Barnier, once they have taken up the mantle from their predecessors in February (EURACTIV 13/03/09). 

In her previous role as competition commissioner, Kroes proved to be an advocate of a pan-European model of collective rights management when she struck a deal with music labels to establish discretionary online European repertoires – shared lists of online content (EURACTIV 21/10/09). 

"The success of a pan-European licensing shop would depend on how well collecting societies interact with each other," said Kostas Rossoglou from Brussels-based consumer rights group BEUC

BEUC welcomed the Commission's "first concrete paper" on online rights management as the current system of reciprocal rights agreements between societies does not extend to all 27 member states and in some cases discriminates against some member states. 

"A commercial user will choose to buy license agreements for countries where they know they can make money," Rossoglou said. 

The Association of Commercial Television  (ACT) in Brussels told EURACTIV that the paper's recommendations do not take into account the licensing differences between the broadcasting, music and publishing industries. 

"Current copyright rules are not a barrier to the distribution of audiovisual media," said ACT Director-General Ross Biggam, criticising the Commission paper's "assumption that copyright is a barrier to innovative services". 

Music authors' rights in Europe are managed by collecting societies, which draw royalty payments when songs are played live and when they are broadcast on media, including on the Internet. 

Thus far, collecting societies have managed authors' rights at national level, but as the Internet grows in importance, a borderless business model is gaining momentum. 

In July 2009, Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes began paving the way for a pan-European collecting society as she pushed 24 European societies to scrap a clause in their contracts preventing authors from choosing or moving to another society. 

  • 1 Feb. 2010: Neelie Kroes and Michel Barnier to take up posts as commissioners for the digital agenda and internal market respectively.
  • May 2010: EU telecoms ministers meet in Madrid.

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