Europe to get copyright overhaul

The European Commission has said it will put forward legislative proposals to make copyright law 'fit the digital age', a day after the UK announced similar plans

The European Commission will soon make legislative proposals to reform copyright law, digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes said on Friday.

According to Kroes, the proposals will tackle orphan works — content that is either out of copyright or for which the rights holder cannot be found — and the governance of the collective management societies that act on behalf of rights holders. The commission will also "look into multi-territorial and pan-European licensing" and the issue of national private copy levies, she said.

"Instead of a dysfunctional system based on a series of cultural Berlin walls, I want a return to sense," Kroes said in a speech given in Avignon, France. "A system where there is scope to create new opportunities for artists and creators, and new business models that better fit the digital age."

The lack of pan-European licensing is an issue that many see as holding back the development of new, easy-to-use media services — the carrot that the UK's Digital Economy Act and other such legislative measures say is supposed to accompany the stick of increased copyright enforcement.

Private copy levies are not applied in the UK, but in several other European countries they add varying amounts to the costs of memory sticks, optical drives, MP3 players and recordable media. The harmonisation of such levies across Europe could mean the cost of such items goes up in the UK.

Kroes said the IT revolution, which allows artists to "cross borders and break down barriers", is comparable to the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution.

"All revolutions reveal, in a new and less favourable light, the privileges of the gatekeepers of the 'Ancien Régime'," she added. "It is no different in the case of the internet revolution, which is unveiling the unsustainable position of certain content gatekeepers and intermediaries. No historically entrenched position guarantees the survival of any cultural intermediary. Like it or not, content gatekeepers risk being sidelined if they do not adapt to the needs of both creators and consumers of cultural goods."

Kroes suggested that today's fragmented copyright system gives a "more prominent role to intermediaries than to artists" and "irritates the public who often cannot access what artists want to offer and leaves a vacuum which is served by illegal content, depriving the artists of their well-deserved remuneration". She also noted that copyright enforcement was entangled in sensitive questions about privacy, data protection or even net neutrality.

"It may suit some vested interests to avoid a debate, or to frame the debate on copyright in moralistic terms that merely demonise millions of citizens," Kroes said. "But that is not a sustainable approach. We need this debate because we need action to promote a legal digital single market in Europe."

The European Commission's copyright review comes at the same time as a similar review within the UK. On Thursday, David Cameron said he wanted intellectual property laws overhauled to recognise the 'fair use' provisions that "some people believe give companies more breathing space to create new products and services".

Citing a comment by the founders of Google that they could not have established their company in Britain, the prime minister said the UK's copyright systems would be reviewed to "see if we can make them fit for the internet age".