Copyright reform or cultural nightmare?

The cultural industries are among the most important sectors of the European economy. [Wesley Fryer/Flickr]

The European Commission sees copyright as an obstacle to the Digital Single Market, but the cultural world is gearing up to defend itself against what it perceives as a threat to an important source of its funding. EURACTIV France reports

Cultural policy is one of the major causes of discord within the EU. The debate surrounding copyright is every bit as passionate as that concerning questions of tax or food. A report on copyright by German Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda ignited debate in the European Parliament. One month after the report’s presentation in mid-January, MEPs had already submitted 550 amendments. This overwhelming reception follows the major interest shown during the European Commission’s 2014 public consultation, which received 9,000 responses.

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

The Juncker Commission has made copyright reform one of its main priorities. But while the Digital Single Market is an idea supported by the vast majority of member states and lawmakers, the means by which to bring it about are less consensual, especially with regards to copyright law, which was last revised in 2001.

“This own-initiative report should have evaluated the current situation and offered recommendations for the future… but in the end it is a series of legislative proposals that, without an extensive analysis of the situation, is really just an ideological document,” the MEP Virginie Rozière wrote on her blog. The fact that Julia Reda is a member of the Pirate Party is often regarded as provocative in itself.

€540 billion per year at stake

For many, European culture is a valuable economic resource that needs preserving. With an annual turnover of €540 billion and more than 7 million jobs in the EU, culture is the third most important employment sector across the 28 member states, behind construction and hospitality, according to the EY report, carried out at the request of GESAC, the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance.

The consulting firm’s analysis presents a rather optimistic view of the industry: it includes employees of the cinema and television sectors, but also the jobs they generate. The music sector itself also generates only a modest number of jobs, but also supports the visual arts and the large number of people involved in putting on concerts and festivals.

For Hervé Rony, the director of Scam, the whole value chain of cultural works would be threatened by a revision of the current copyright law. He believes that copyright is not the problem.

“Copyright posed no problems to Netflix on its arrival in Europe; they simply negotiated the rights with collective management organisations. What really is lacking is a real European industrial policy,” he said.

“We cannot have a cultural policy that only works in the interests of consumers,” said Carole Tongue, Chair of the Association of European Coalitions for Cultural Diversity, which fears the gradual replacement of European culture by the standardised content offered by the global providers, assembled under the acronym “GAFA” (Google Apple Facebook Amazon).

This fear is also visible among politicians, who distrust the large digital companies that have shown they will go to any lengths to avoid tax in order to gain an advantage over their European competitors.

“The GAFA companies do not always pay for copyright and practice aggressive tax planning. Faced with this, Brussels’ insistence on free content and competition does not work. We will not undermine Europe’s cultural richness just to please a few multinationals!” said Jean-Marie Cavada, an MEP and President of a working group on culture.

The President of the European Commission responded to the fears of the cultural industries in February, and offered his commitment to protecting copyright in Europe.

An over-eager European Commission?

Some suspect the Commission of being a little too eager to act on the subject. European civil servants come from across the 28 member states and often complain that they cannot continue watching their national television channels or their favourite football matches. One civil servant told EURACTIV “It is a problem for some of us. The staff and the Commissioners are inevitably both the judge and the judged.”

The topic of “geo-blocking”, the geographical blocking of content, has become something of an obsession for some consumers from small countries, where the low profitability of the domestic markets limits their access to cultural content. This is an issue for the Estonian Commissioner for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip, who described these practices as “discriminatory”.

Should copyright law be rebuilt from scratch with a new pan-European system, even if this means eroding the existing systems? This is the question that is causing a stir in the cultural sectors, which argue that only a small number of Europeans are affected.

The French writer and cartoonist Benoît Peeters believes copyright could emerge stronger than ever from the current debate, which hinges on several fundamental questions: What is copyright for, whom does it serve, and why? 

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," Juncker said during his announcement of the European executive's work programme.

The European Commission's strategy for a single European market is 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.

  • 16 April: European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs votes on amendments to the report by Julia Reda.
  • 20 May: Plenary vote on report.
  • Ongoing in 2016: finalisation of copyright reform planned by the Commission. 

European Parliament

European Commission




Subscribe to our newsletters