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26th Apr 2019

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MEPs push for new copyright law in digital era

MEPs in the legal affairs committee are calling on the European Commission to adopt mandatory rules on copyright management instead of issuing softer so-called "recommendations" on the issue in future, as artists, record labels and computer companies battle it out for control of the new digital market place.

Hungarian socialist MEP Katalin Levai proposed last week "a binding legislative act…in the form of a directive to harmonise this important area" and update the 2001 copyright directive in a report endorsed by the committee, with Austrian socialist MEP Maria Berger saying "Mandatory rules really change things...otherwise the market will rule."

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  • EUobserver will host a debate on Wednesday (29 November) in Brussels, bringing together some of the key players in the fast-changing sector (Photo: EUobserver)

Ms Berger - co-ordinator of Social Democrats in the European Parliament's legal affairs unit - added that music is not a commodity and that collective rights managers - which currently handle authors' rights on a country-by-country basis - are mainly non-profit groups whose effort to boost cultural diversity and protect small artists could be injured by unrestricted competition.

The MEPs' intervention comes after a push by major record labels to overhaul Europe's 150-year old collective rights system by allowing the most competitive collective rights managers to issue pan-European licences and for artists and record labels to flock to collective managers whose model suits them best instead of being "trapped" in national regimes.

"It's a war of the worlds," says Pia Raug, spokeswoman collective rights management lobby CISAC, with some collective rights managers such as the UK's PRS and Germany's GEMA already using previous European Commission guidance on the topic to break ranks with colleagues and start giving record label EMI pan-European digital licences to their artists' songs.

EUobserver and Blueprint Partners on Wednesday (29 November) are hosting a debate on the subject, with some of the key players in the sector such as single market commissioner Charlie McCreevy, record industry lobbyist John Kennedy, Yahoo global music manager Robert Roback, singer/songwriter Mike Hanrahan and Ms Berger all taking part.

Interest in copyright reform is being sparked by explosive growth in the digital music market which is set to become a €3.9 billion a year industry in the EU by 2011, but which is throwing up new challenges both for independent artists trying to exploit the new medium and the companies trying to make money from downloading songs.

The private copy levy battle

Another key issue on the table will be the relation between digital rights management (DRM) and private copy levies, which has seen some of Europe's top film directors such as Pedro Almodovar, Mike Leigh and Lars von Trier writing letters of complaint to Brussels in a fast-growing sector that already nets European artists some €1.6 billion a year in subsidies.

DRM technology allows computer firms to place limits on the number of private copies of songs or films that customers can make in an attempt to limit piracy, while private copy levies - which operate in 20 of the 25 EU states - see artists get a small percentage of the price of every DVD recorder, MP3 player or even blank disc sold on the legal basis that these will be used to make uncontrolled "private copies."

Computer firms say the levy system - introduced in the cassette recording days of the 1960s - is outdated with consumers robbed of the €1.6 billion a year and with hardware makers losing sales. But artists argue that DRM is still in its infancy while consumer groups say existing DRM models limit the rights of the consumer to use the technology he buys in the way that he wants.

The levy battle has seen some of the ugliest lobbying in Brussels for a long time, with computer firms saying collective rights managers lose and mishandle the levy money while the music industry says the computer firms cook up bogus figures to try and prove their case to the European authorities.

"I have heard a lot of loud conflicting voices on this issue right across Europe," Mr McCreevy said last week, hinting that he may go for the middle way in the DRM/levy dispute in a recommendation due out next month, despite earlier signals from the commission that it plans to back the big computer firms against the authors' rights managemers.

Beatles for free

The advent of internet music has also given rise to publishers selling a lot more "old" songs to specialist customers in an online phenomenon known as "long-tailing" that is fuelling artists' concerns about the fact Europe has one of the shortest copyright regimes for sound recordings in the world.

Across the EU, authors of songs and their families benefit from copyright for the whole of their lives plus 70 years, while performers of songs and their producers benefit for just 50 years - as in the case of some Cliff Richard songs from 1958 and some Beatles songs from 1963.

Performers and record labels have teamed up to push for the EU to extend the current 50 years of copyright from the date of recording to at least 95 years. In the US, performers and producers hold recording rights for between 95 and 120 years, while performers in Mexico get 75 years and 70 years in Chile, Brazil, Peru and Turkey.

A commission decision on the subject is not expected until 2008, but in the meantime a UK treasury report into the issue has dealt the artists' campaign a blow after London found the benefits of extension are not significant enough to justify the change.

"If the UK government decides not to support copyright equalisation then the music industry will have to continue its campaign in Europe," record industry lobbyist John Kennedy said, ahead of the EUobserver Creative Rights conference on Wednesday.

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