At the beginning of March, right after the Italian film The Great Beauty won an Oscar, visitors to the homepage of one of the country's largest newspapers were greeted with a large advert celebrating "the great beauty of Italy's artists".
Anyone clicking on the advert ended up on a website — CopiaPrivata.it — which hosted a petition signed by more than 500 well-known Italian artists in support of the compenso per copia privata, a levy applied to all blank storage media.
The levy applies to any piece of hardware that can hold photographic or video material – whether that's stand-alone storage or the hard drive of a device. In exchange for the fee, consumers are able to make private copies of copyrighted works they own — films, music and so on — for their own personal use.
The money raised by the levy is subsequently handed over to the Siae, an organisation which supports artists and publishers, which then distributes the revenues among rights-holders.
The concept of a private copy levy — sometimes called a 'piracy tax' — is present in many European countries. In Spain, the fee was abolished in 2012, although it persists in France.
In Italy, the levy has always been controversial; it's perceived as an extra tax consumers end up paying on their new hardware — on every electronic device with an internal memory, from smart TVs to computers, from USB drives to set-top boxes — often without being aware of its existence.
The levy is meant to be paid by "the manufacturers and importers of recording equipment and blank storage" sold in the country, but nothing prevents those companies from clawing back the levy by upping the price they change consumers for their products.
The Copia Privata website is one of the latest weapons in a battle that has been raging for several months between the Siae; electronic device manufacturers, importers and suppliers' groups; and consumers' associations including Altroconsumo.
The artists that have signed the CopiaPrivata.it petition — now numbering over 3,000 — are appealing to Dario Franceschini, Italy's new minister for culture, appointed recently when the Letta government gave way to the new executive led by Matteo Renzi. The point at issue: money.
Upping the levy
The artists want to see the levy raised as it considers the tariff for each device — set by the ministry for culture in 2009 — to be on the low side: €0.90 on a mobile phone, €1.90 for a PC.
Now the Siae is asking for the levy to be increased by as much as 500 percent on some devices (the levy is tiered depending on the size of the storage involved) and wants to extend the levy to new categories of products, like tablets and smartphones.
The increased royalties would amount to €5.20 for smartphones and tablets, €6 for computers and as much as €32.20 (plus VAT) for other multimedia devices equipped with hard disks of 400GB and above.
As of late December, it seemed the new levy amounts would be adopted — a process that needs a new government decree to be passed — but then Altroconsumo stepped in, launching an online petition asking the then minister for culture "not to give a Christmas present" to the Siae.
"We also asked the minister if he was about to sign the decree, as the rumours said, why the taskforce of technical experts [that are supposed to review the new decree before it's passed by the government] hadn't been consulted first, and why the draft decree hadn't been shared with relevant stakeholders, like Altroconsumo and other consumers' associations," Marco Pierani of Altroconsumo told ZDNet.
One the main criticisms brought against the proposed increase in the levy was that consumers' habits have changed since it was brought in: people don't tend to burn DVDs and CDs to watch films and listen to music, instead accessing the same content through online download or streaming services.
"And when somebody buys a song or a movie from Amazon, Apple or other companies, the right to make a certain number of copies (which varies according to the licence) is already figured into the price. So it's unfair that consumers pay twice for the same service," IT lawyer Guido Scorza told ZDNet.
The Siae, on the other hand, is keen to highlight that the law that brought in the private copy levy itself stipulates that the amounts should be updated every three years and that the royalties demanded in Italy have, until now, been much lower than those in other countries.
When it comes to smartphones, for instance, the levy ranges — depending on the size of the device's onboard storage — from €2.80 to €14.72 in France and from €16 to €36 in Germany. Critics, however, accuse the association of cherrypicking their examples, then claiming they represent typical levies.
"A form of 'fair compensation' exists in 22 out of 28 European countries and it's applied to tablet and smartphones in only three of them," Scorza said.
In January, the culture minister announced that, before taking any decision, he would wait for the results of a dedicated report, commissioned to shed light on these and other aspects of the private copy levy.
Siae did not take it well. "When a national law has a timeline set for its implementation, and a minister of the republic does not respect it for many, many months, even though... the draft decree is ready, and he has publicly said he would take care of it, what are you supposed to think? I come from a planet where people keep their word," the association's president, well-known singer and author Gino Paoli, said.
The stakes are high: Confindustria Digitale, the main organisation that represent Italian companies working in ICT, has estimated that the total amount of compensation collected by the Siae, if the proposed increases are approved, would jump from €72m in 2012 to roughly €200m in 2014.
No wonder, then, that when Letta was substituted by Renzi, and a new minister for culture was appointed, the Siae fought back, renewing its requests to Franceschini, enlisting the newly-garlanded director of The Great Beauty Paulo Sorrentino in its battle to get the levy updated.
The matter, however, remains open: Franceschini, due to ill health, has not been able to work on the update, but is expected back at the office this week. Everybody's waiting for his decision.