Broadcasters grappling with ‘inconsistent’ copyright laws

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Existing levels of copyright protection for broadcasters are "problematic" and inconsistencies from country to country should be ended, concludes a new report by the European Audiovisual Observatory (EAO).

International law lays down a minimum degree of protection, but countries can go further either individually or collectively.

This is somewhat surprising given the increased global dimension of audiovisual content distribution, driven by the Internet and digitisation, argues the report, a copy of which was obtained by EURACTIV. 

The study makes the case for reforming laws that protect broadcasters' programme-carrying signals.

Towards internationally-binding rules

The Council of Europe recently decided that it should strive to bring about internationally-binding rules on protecting broadcast signals to safeguard audiovisual content against piracy.

"Although European Union directives have harmonised national provisions [on copyright] the nature and/or interpretation of rights in individual states and/or the limits imposed on them may differ from one another," concludes the report, entitled 'The Legal Protection of Broadcasters – Challenges Posed by New Services'.

Indeed, as content increasingly moves online, policymakers worldwide are at loggerheads over how to crack down on cyber-criminals, unlawful content and illegal downloading. But laws have been slow to arrive as legislators try to reconcile fundamental rights and Internet security (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on 'Policing the Internet').  

"Digitisation and convergence, especially the enormous increase in capacity and performance in the case of Internet access, computers and storage media, have simplified and speeded up the distribution and consumption of programme content," the report states.

Meanwhile, piracy has benefited from the greater efficiency of the new technologies, it noted. "Digital signals can be copied in high quality and distributed, and programmes delivered via the Internet are particularly vulnerable," it points out.

Faced with this new reality, governments have been slow to react and it is proving extremely difficult to achieve worldwide or European agreement on the protection of broadcasters' rights.

"Broadcasters should not have to tolerate third parties benefiting from their investments without being able to defend themselves," the researchers argue.

The European Commission, for its part, recognises that fragmented national rules on rights clearance are preventing online commerce from growing.

But at her hearing in February, EU Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes said copyright was a sensitive area and that "as long as there are different national copyright rules, it is difficult to have a pan-European piracy initiative".

Legal uncertainty over PVR

Much of the debate surrounding copyright law relates to new services, such as personal video recorders (PVR), ad-skipping technology and public viewing exhibitions, the popularity of which boomed during the football World Cup last summer.

"The controversies surrounding personal video recorders […] illustrate with respect to all new services how different national ways of addressing issues can be," the report states.

While PVR services offered by providers that are independent of television broadcasters "are generally regarded as unlawful in Europe," in the US "the same service […] was considered lawful," the researchers found, citing recent court cases on the matter.

"A great deal depends in an individual case on how much and, in particular, how promptly the providers cooperate with the rightsholders," the report states.

The EAO report will feed into the debate on reforming copyright protection for broadcasters, which will continue at the next meeting of a Council of Europe steering group on the matter, set to take place in November. 

Specific regulations on the legal protection of broadcasting organisations and the content of their programmes have existed for 50 years.

However, the scope and effectiveness of regulations to protect authors and copyright holders is a matter of considerable debate, particularly in the modern era, which is seeing broadcasters extend their traditional services to embrace the digital age.

In March, Europe's broadcasters put pressure on the EU to clean up rules for rights clearance of online content, particularly live streams and video on demand, complaining that the current patchwork of regulations was too expensive and too cumbersome (EURACTIV 18/03/10). 

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