EU Sets Out Plans To Modernize Copyright For The Digital Age: User-Generated Content And Cross-Border Usage On The Agenda

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Regulators are not known to be fleet of foot when it comes to responding to market conditions — it can take years for something to get passed, or for fines to be levied on companies that violate antitrust rules, for example — but you can’t knock them for trying. Today, the European Union set out an agenda for how it plans to modernize copyright rules and regulations in light of the rise of the “digital economy.”

To be clear, Commissioners are not yet outlining any new rules, but today the kicked off a debate about what they will need to include when they do. What’s significant is that this conversation involves the “full college” of European Commissioners.

In a meeting today, the six areas that they outlined (so far) that will need to be included are as follows:

  1. Cross-border portability. This is a major issue in Europe right now — because it concerns not only how consumers can legally use content, paid for in one market, in another; but also how that content can be sold. Effectively, what companies like Spotify or Apple have to do is to sign country-by-country agreements to sell digital content. That makes for a very inefficient system. Finding a way to cover the full region of Europe could help improve the economies of scale for businesses like these, and also make it more practical for users in Europe. This is further detailed in point 5 below.
  2. User-Generated Content. Ah, YouTube. The EU cites figures that on average,every minute, people upload around 100 videos to video-sharing sites and over 150,000 photos to photo-sharing sites. The issue in Europe, apparently, is that it’s not clear to users when content is legal or illegal in these cases. Equally, there isn’t an efficient way right now for content holders to monitor when content is uploaded in illegal ways.
  3. Text and data mining. This is not, apparently, to do with invasive online advertising or “do not track”-style initiatives, but this: “an automated research technique for the purpose of scientific research. An example of this technique is researchers analyse and find patterns in existing scientific information. In addition to a licence for access to the content, this activity requires the permission from each right-holder to copy and reformat each of the huge number of works concerned for the purpose of such analysis.”
  4. Private copying levies. The EU notes that 20 Member States have national legislation on private copying levies for goods which can be used to produce copies, but each of these are different. “As a result, the prices of these goods vary widely across borders. Manufacturers have increasingly complained about this approach while rights holders continue to strongly support it.”
  5. Insufficient (cross-border) access to audiovisual works online (such as films and television shows). The Commissioners agreed that cross-border access for online works needs to be improved and that it will follow up on this specifically in 2013.
  6. European cultural heritage. This sounds like a long-tail content play: the EU sys that only 15% of Europe’s film archives are available right now to European citizens, as one example. If this gets pushed forward, expect some funding to be released for more projects to “unlock” some of these and other archives. Whether there is a consumer appetite for, says, obscure Dutch pop from the sixties is another matter.

The first task is to decide whether the current system is “fit for purpose,” and then to decide what “medium term issues” might start to get tackled… in 2014. Again, this doesn’t seem like very quick action in an industry that, as we all know, moves pretty quickly. How that will get tackled is perhaps on the agenda for another day.