No piracy watchdog, a tablet tax and free software: France's vision of culture in the digital age

A study commissioned last summer to find how to protect France's "exception culturelle" in the online era has delivered its verdict - and it's generating its fair share of criticism already.
Written by Valéry Marchive, Contributor on
Cannes, in France, home of the famous film festival. Image: Shutterstock

A study commissioned last summer by the French government to determine how to safeguard France's culture and arts industries in the digital age has published its proposals.

Led by Pierre Lescure, the former CEO of the French broadcast group Canal+, the so-called Mission Lescure was last year given the task of finding ways to fight commercial counterfeiting and protect French cultural works, including music, in the online age. One of the 80 proposals it put forward this week is directly targeted at Hadopi, the French antipiracy authority which was created in 2009, and has so far cost millions of euros of taxpayers' money without giving the arts much to show for it.

Hadopi is now mainly responsible for enforcing France's three-strikes antipiracy regulations — regulations that the Mission Lescure now proposes should be eased: in the 500-page report released on Tuesday, it calls for consumer education around piracy to be improved; ending the suspension of internet access for those falling foul of the three-strikes regulation; decriminalising the offence so it doesn't merit a criminal record; cutting the fine infractions can attract from the current level of €1,500 to €60; and obliging home users to secure their internet access.

The study also suggests giving French broadcasting watchdog the CSA responsibility for enforcement of antipiracy regulation, which would effectively sound the death knell for Hadopi as an independent authority.

More than a broadcasting regulator, the CSA would become a watchdog for all "cultural and audiovisual media, linear as well as non-linear" — a clear reference to online content. To justify such a move, the study states that Hadopi didn't do a great job in supporting the developing of legal content offerings in the country. The CSA would also be charged with regulating DRM on content, and "analysing value-sharing between producers/publishers and online services".

But despite all these proposals, the study looks rather like the start of just that — more studying. It suggests the definition of counterfeiting should be redefined and the nature of intellectual property on cultural works rethought to better adapt it to new practices like "transformative creation" — reusing and repurposing content in new ways such as mashups.

The report also calls for more use of "free licences", particularly with regard to software, and a tax to be put on internet-connected devices such as smartphones and tablets to help fund content creation.

Though the suggested death of Hadopi might please some, the Lescure study is overall likely to spark heated debate. The artists and musicians rights management organisation Adami claims that artists have approved "with great satisfaction" the proposals of the study. Hadopi itself adds that it welcomes the proposals, highlighting in particular the subject of the three-strike regulations. There's also support from the French Telecommunications Operators Federation (FFT), which in particular backs the idea of cutting the time before movies are released online and proposal to abandon the practice of cutting off users' internet access in cases of file-sharing.

In a statement, the French internet advocacy group La Quadrature du Net also acknowledged that the mission Lescure had a few interesting ideas ,but added that: "When it comes to concrete proposals regarding sharing of cultural works on the internet, [the report] quickly gives in to the arguments of the content distribution industry. The proposals are carbon copies of the policies suggested by the corresponding industry lobbies."

The French free software advocacy group April says it's against the lack of scrutiny over the matter of DRM, and the study is "far from acknowledging the failure of DRM regulation by authorities like Hadopi".

Those who make cultural works don't appear to like the tone of the study either. One producers' association, the SPPF, appears to be satisfied by the proposal of a new tax on connected devices like smartphones but claims the study lacks understanding of the risks taken by producers. Another, UPFI, is also largely on the same page. The French music industry’s trade body SNEP steps up the rhetoric: "The Lescure study is mortgaging the future of musical production in France."

So far, the Lescure study proposals are nothing more than suggestions, and any implementation will need to be debated before a law is passed, with stakeholders given plenty of time to pick over what will no doubt be a great deal of controversy.

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