Blog: Crunch time for copyright: Europe needs to find the best way forward

Met dank overgenomen van A. (Andrus) Ansip i, gepubliceerd op maandag 23 juli 2018.

Reforming Europe's copyright laws has turned out to be one of the most controversial parts of the entire Digital Single Market project.

Perhaps that is not so surprising. There are many vested interests, there are large industries involved and there has been little change to the rules in several decades.

The European Commission presented its proposal for copyright reform in September 2016.

Then, as now, our primary aim is to adapt EU rules for the digital age.

In addition, we want to make more films, series and other cultural material available between EU countries. We want to improve remuneration for creators and artists, expand their market opportunities; support creativity and digital innovation; broaden cultural access for online users; protect the freedom of speech.

To achieve all this is long overdue.

Politically, it is a lot harder than it sounds.

The EU's decision-making process is not always obvious to everyone. To summarise briefly:

The Commission has 'right of initiative', meaning that it drafts and proposes laws.

The EU's two other main institutions - the European Parliament and Council (representing all EU governments) - then need to agree on their respective positions based on the Commission's proposal for a new law.

Only then can inter-institutional negotiations begin, with a view to a final deal.

On copyright, this is where we stand in the process:

In May, EU governments agreed their position, with some changes to our initial proposal, and are ready to negotiate with the European Parliament.

In early July, the Parliament decided it was not ready with a final position and will vote in September. Once Parliament's position is ready, the three-way negotiations can start.

I said copyright reform was controversial. That is an understatement.

The scale of lobbying, from all sides, has been astonishing.

Everyone claims that their rivals will kill creativity, or kill innovation, or kill the internet - or kill all of it at the same time. This all has to stop. It is getting us nowhere.

It is good to have a lively debate about copyright - but not one which has descended into slogans and exaggeration. We need to go beyond that, to find an acceptable and workable compromise that gives Europeans the right kind of copyright laws for the digital age.

They deserve nothing less. And it is achievable.

The main problem areas

Two points have attracted the most attention and disagreement.

The first is about granting a new right to press publishers to make it easier for them to negotiate with online platforms about when their publications are used.

It is similar to the right which exists today for record and film producers and broadcasters.

As one possible way to support quality media, for me this is fine.

But a new right like this should not restrict the freedom of people to make hyperlinks to articles on the internet, or memes. This is a fundamental element of free online debate.

The other point is about protecting artists.

Here, I still believe that our proposal was on the right track the first time round.

We said major internet platforms - which allow people to upload large amount of videos, photos and other content - should, together with rights holders, identify copyright-protected material so artists can be properly paid for its use.

In some ways, this is similar to libraries counting books borrowed, or radio stations counting songs played.

We did not propose changing the basic rules governing platforms' responsibility on the internet: the European Parliament and EU governments took a different view and wanted to adapt them.

That is their prerogative. However, on this particular point, these are the areas where I want to focus:

  • avoiding the risk of creating rules that lead to wide-reaching filtering;
  • maintaining freedom of expression;
  • making sure there are provisions to guard against over-removal of material, and against any general monitoring of the internet.

Today, the debate sounds as if we had to choose between protecting artists or the internet.

I do not agree with this. What we should be doing - together - is to protect both: to make sure artists are paid fairly for their work, and at the same time protect freedom of expression and creativity on the internet. So we should not accept anything that puts that freedom in danger.

Neither should we accept leaving artists and quality media unprotected.

Those were my starting points for the Commission's proposal. They have not changed.

Let's also remember that the copyright reform is also about many other aspects:

  • making it easier for museums to make digital copies of important out-of-copyright works to preserve them - transferring old VHS tapes to computers, for example. They face high costs to clear the many rights to preserve just one audio-visual work;
  • making it easier for teachers to use protected material for their courses, non-commercially;
  • making it easier for researchers to use text and data mining to analyse large sets of documents.
  • making more audio-visual works available between EU countries;

Not moving forward with EU copyright reform means that we would lose out on all these positive aspects as well. I do not believe that is in anyone's interest.

What happens next

Ideally, I would like to see the Parliament move closer to our initial proposal for its September vote.

That's not false modesty, by the way - I genuinely believe that it was a good proposal, taking all opposing interests into account. That was not easy to achieve in itself.

I say that because to me, the reactions from inside and outside the European Parliament indicate that a lot of people feel that an acceptable balance or compromise is not yet there in its report, which - in its final version - will be the basis for the Parliament's political position on copyright reform.

Many are upset about what they see as measures in the report which limit their freedom of expression on the internet. So there is still a good deal of ground to cover and sort out, even before the three-way negotiations start, as we hope, in the autumn.

It would be naïve to expect finding the right middle ground, striking an acceptable compromise between opposing camps - while also remaining on the side of consumers, creators and business - to be easy. As the current debate shows, it will be anything but easy.

But, as I said at the start, I do believe that it is possible - provided there is enough political willpower and flexibility to make copyright work for Europe in the digital age.

A good summer to all, and another blog soon.