Geo-blocking attacked from all sides

Geo-blocking has surprisingly become a major topic in the European copyright reform debate. [Christopher Dombres/Flickr]

Criticism of copyright law has crystallised around the territorial restriction of content within the EU. The subject of “geo-blocking” is high on the European Commission’s list of priorities. EURACTIV France reports

Watching a television programme from your home country in another EU member state can be a real headache. This is a daily concern for the European Commissioners, who spend the five years of their mandate in Brussels deprived of audio-visual entertainment from their home country.

TV catch-up or video on demand services are often not available outside the country where they are broadcast, as content rights belong to different channels in different countries. The question of digital rights management (DRM) may appear trivial, but it has taken on an unexpected significance in the European policy debate.

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

Andrus Ansip, Commission Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, complained about geo-blocking upon his arrival in Brussels. “If I can watch a football match in Estonia, but not in Brussels, it is quite simply unfair,” he told MEPs at his European Parliament hearing.

Finance first

The reasoning behind the territoriality of copyright is largely economic. Producers sell licences to multiple broadcasters in order to maximise their profits. Geo-blocking responds to a problem in the business model: broadcasters buy content if, and only if, they can make it pay by reaching the largest possible audience. The European market, divided into 28 Member States with 24 official languages, and many more besides, is as fragmented as European culture itself. The situation thus reflects the economic reality, rather than a legal problem.

>> Read: Tintin writer: ‘Copyright has always been a battle’

Political will

The question of geo-blocking has taken centre stage in the debate surrounding the European Commission’s plans for copyright reform.

German Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda said: “The Digital Economy Commissioner Günther Oettinger has said he wants to resolve this problem, and so have Jean-Claude Juncker and Andrus Ansip. A strong political will exists; it is one of the Commission’s priorities”.

Copyright territoriality also comes in for criticism in the MEP’s draft report on copyright reform. “The vast majority of end user respondents to the consultation report facing problems when trying to access online services across EU Member States, particularly when technological protection measures are used to enforce territorial restrictions,” the report states.

>> Read: Report urges internet user-friendly copyright law

“Since 2001, whereas new internet-based services, such as streaming, have gained importance, it seems common-sense that one of the main objectives of the Digital Single Market should be removing territorial restrictions and encouraging pan-European accessibility of services,” the report continues.

A shared opinion

The criticism of geo-blocking is widely shared. Hervé Rony, the Director General of SCAM, said, “The question of portability is a real problem”.

But it remains a problem that affects only a “happy few” in Europe. “A French tourist visiting Copenhagen for four days does not think ‘Oh my god, I can’t access my Canal account!’ But the principle of portability is logical,” Hervé Rony added.

>> Read: Audiovisual sector feels threatened by copyright reform

Despite broad support for reform, proposing alterations to the geo-blocking system is still something of a taboo. “There is a lot of lobbying to preserve geo-blocking, so it is not easy. It would also depend on the public, on European citizens,” said Julia Reda.

In Paris, the portability of rights is viewed as an acceptable solution, but they are not prepared to question the principle of territoriality. In a memo from February, the French Secretariat General for European Affairs (SGAE) said that reforms should focus on “the portability of services and not on overhauling the principle of territoriality, which could lead to the decay of European culture”.

This position echoes fears that Apple, Google, Netflix and others, already the dominant forces of the digital market, could use their financial clout to further consolidate their power over the European market.

Julia Reda plays down this risk. “I don’t want to offer preferential treatment to the American digital companies. The changes we are proposing will above all benefit European companies that want to establish themselves,” she promised.

>> Read: Carole Tongue: ‘Funding for creative works is under threat in the digital age’

The counter-example of Netflix

Besides the inconvenience it causes users, copyright territoriality is blamed for hampering the development of pan-European digital companies in the audio-visual sector, who are said to be discouraged by a copyright system that works on a state-by-state basis.

But American companies like Netflix, already present in a dozen European countries, had no problem negotiating their rights with the different countries.

It is hard to deny that the firm’s beginnings in the large, monolingual North American market gave it a competitive advantage.

“We must not be naïve. The European Digital Single Market will never be comparable to what could exist across the Atlantic because of language. This is another reason to protect European culture by limiting the reform of copyright territoriality to the issue of portability,” the French government stated. 

The modernisation of copyright law is one of the priorities of the Juncker Commission.

"All sectors of the economy and society are becoming digital. Europe should be on the front line of this digital revolution for its citizens and businesses. Obstacles to digitalisation are obstacles to employment, prosperity and progress," he said during his announcement of the European executive's work programme.

Jean-Claude Juncker's strategy for a single European market is as follows: to build confidence between stakeholders, to bulldoze obstacles, to guarantee connectivity and access to digital technology across the EU, to build a digital economy, to promote e-society and invest in research in technology and information.

Andrus Ansip, the Vice-President of the Digital Single Market, is leading this initiative. 

12 March: Auteurs&Co 2015 meeting: Single market... Single culture? - Scam

16 April: European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs votes on amendments to the report by Julia Reda.

20 May: Plenary vote on report. 

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