EU vows to break down digital borders

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The flow of digital content is hampered by national borders and their laws, an EU report published last week shows, leading the European Commission to argue that better rules on consumer access and copyright are needed.

The report shows a growing recognition by the EU that as innovation on the Internet intensifies, so too does the urgency to establish a legal framework for both consumers and a litany of content producers. 

“It will be my key priority to work, in cooperation with other commissioners, on a simple, consumer-friendly legal framework for accessing digital content in Europe’s single market, while ensuring at the same time fair remuneration of creators,” said Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for the information society, presenting the report on Thursday (22 October). 

The reflection paper – drafted jointly by the services of Reding and Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy – outlines current challenges for three groups of stakeholders – rights holders, consumers and commercial users – and contains some interesting revelations about the EU’s current thinking on a single rulebook for digital business and consumer access to digital content. 

At the moment in the EU, the author of a single work enjoys separate copyrights for that work in each of the 27 member states. The Commission will try to draft rules that will allow users access to digital content that is, by nature, territorial and conflicts with the increasingly borderless flow of online content. 

Towards a Book Rights Registry? 

The EU has previously criticised a settlement between Google and the American Authors Guild on the creation of a Books Rights Registry to ensure that fees from access to books via Google Search go the rights holder in question. 

The Commission paper seems to recognise the need for such a registry, recommending the introduction of an “extended or mandatory collective management system” for the same purposes as the US model. 

Member states worry that Google’s urgency to expand its books digitisation business to Europe would infringe copyright rules in their countries and encroach on their own efforts to digitise creative content (EURACTIV 08/09/09). 

Barriers to online video 

Europeans have been lobbying the EU on access to audiovisual content on the Internet, complaining that sports events among others are available in some countries but not in others. 

“Efforts by consumers to circumvent territorial restrictions of transmission rights and the growing grey market for devices used for that purpose suggest that there is a demand for multi-territory distribution of audiovisual media services,” according to the EU’s findings. 

Financial incentives for multi-territory offers would solve current limitations to access, according to the paper. A dependency on local distributors and local funding is a disincentive to offer services to a variety of countries, it concludes. 

Cracking down on illegal downloads 

Eliminating illegal downloads has been a key priority for the EU. The issue has dominated year-long discussions on the Union’s pending telecoms package, which was derailed in the summer after a row over Internet users’ rights and illegal downloads. 

The Parliament surprised onlookers last Thursday by voting against an amendment on users’ rights that it had fought hard to retain (EURACTIV 23/10/09). Amendment 138, which would give accused illegal downloaders the right to a fair trial, was reworded to a right to “a prior, fair and impartial procedure”. 

Internet activists argue that big media is lobbying the EU because trials are too costly and too slow. But downgrading the job of penalising illegal downloaders to a judicial authority would be marred with errors as Internet addresses are not an accurate way of tracking the person who downloaded content illegally, activists argue. 

The report is one of the latest papers addressing the need for more homogenous rules to create a digital single market. 

In 2008, the European Commission's 'Communication on Creative Content Online in the Single Market' launched a stakeholders consultation of 77 experts on online content. The final report summarises discussions on new business models, legal offerings and piracy, management of copyright online, protection of minors and cultural diversity. 

An online commerce roundtable is discussing solutions to overcome territorial restrictions in online music licensing. The Commission is also backing a study to assess options relating to the licensing of audiovisual works, including the option of a multi-territory license. The final study will be available in 2010. 

Two key proposals currently being discussed in the Parliament and the Council are the telecoms package and the Consumer Rights Directive, both of which aim to create a legal framework for the creation and use of online content. 

The telecoms package includes rules on internet rights and broadband access in the EU. The issue of illegal downloads has held up the package's adoption but a conciliation procedure is expected before the end of the year (EURACTIV 23/10/09). 

  • December: Council adopts conclusions on Consumer Rights Directive.
  • 2010: Publication of final study from online commerce roundtable.

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