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23rd Sep 2018

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Copyright: Anatomy of a controversial report

  • 'Of course reaching this broad majority came at a price', said Pirate MEP Julia Reda (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Parliament's text on copyright sailed through committee on Tuesday but only after a long and difficult fight by its author, including to overcome prejudice about her political colours.

The report’s progress was minutely followed by rights holders and publishers, although as non-binding text, it has no legal standing and can, in theory, simply be ignored.

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“They have given this report the weight in the public eye by going completely crazy about it”, German MEP Julia Reda told this website after the vote in the legal affairs committee.

“It's not legally binding, so it's only as important as people think it is. And people think this report is extremely important, everybody is completely agitated about this.”

One of the reasons why debate on the report was so loud was due to Reda herself. The German deputy is the EP’s only member of the international pirate party which wants to overhaul copyright rules. Critics saw her as biased and radical.

“In a way it wasn't exactly to my advantage that I got this report as a Pirate representative, but at the same time, this makes it more amazing that we did manage to agree in the end. It really took a lot of effort, and a lot of simply talking to the people and convincing them that I'm not a crazy person.”

Monday 19 January: a tough fight ahead

The political process started last year when incoming EU digital commissioner Gunther Oettinger was given the task of modernising copyright rules.

In anticipation of Oettinger's legislative proposal, the European Parliament decided to lay out its own ideas on the issue.

“This report is the parliament's first step of feeding into this debate. … To already give the commission a feeling for which kind of reform the parliament has in mind”, Reda said in January.

She focused her report on the implementation of a 2001 copyright directive, which “has fallen short of achieving the goals that it has set out, the harmonisation of copyright in the digital world”.

That directive, which includes possible exceptions and limitations to copyright, has not been implemented uniformly in the EU.

One example illustrates this neatly.

Some countries have adopted 'freedom of panorama', which means their citizens can publish photos they take of buildings or monuments in a public space without having to ask the architect or his or her heirs.

“Denmark, as opposed to Germany or Belgium, has no freedom of panorama exception. If you publish a picture of the Little Mermaid on the internet or in a newspaper article, you may get fined by the heirs of the artist and this has happened quite a few times.”

Reda, in January, says she is aware that there will be a lot of interest in the report but adds: “When people read my report they will also have to realise that what I am proposing is not getting rid of copyright and staging a revolution”.

Monday 16 March: 556 amendments

“This is quite a lot for an initiative report,” notes Reda in March, two week after the deadline for tabling amendments to her text.

Reda's draft motion for a resolution, which has 24 paragraphs spread out over just five pages, generated a whopping 556 amendments.

“It's overwhelming on the one hand, because if you have that many amendments, just organising the compromise process takes a little bit of time,” she says. But she has some extra time to do it – the commission’s draft proposals on copyright reform are now only expected in autumn.

Copyright is a complex topic. Some of the proposed changes by MEPs are testament to this.

“I have in my report the demand for freedom of panorama – that you can use pictures of public buildings. I have amendments to that saying: 'yeah, these pictures should be in the public domain, but only for non-commercial use'. But 'public domain' means that you can do whatever you like with it.”

The next step for Reda is to speak to the shadow rapporteurs and try and merge some of the amendments into compromise amendments.

“At the end of the day I would rather have a report that is not exactly what I was hoping for, but where we can get a compromise and get a majority for it, than lose by one or two votes.”

Wednesday 15 April: the fox in the hen house

In April European filmmakers come to the parliament with a manifesto called: “The diversity of creation in danger”. They see themselves as under attack, speaking about attempts to “vanquish” their rights.

When asked what the filmmakers fear most, they cite two things: the commission's announcement to “break down national silos in copyright”, and the Reda report.

That she is a Pirate Party member is not left unmentioned. “It's a bit like putting the fox in charge of the hen house, it seems to me”, said Peter Webber, director of The Girl with a Pearl Earring.

But when pressed by this website on the details of his objections, Webber said he had only heard a summary of the report.

When given some examples of proposal, he asks if the filmmakers may have been overreacting.

The proposal of an EU-wide freedom of panorama, “being able to film the Eiffel tower at night, to me, that sounds fair enough”.

Another proposal, to allow internet users “audiovisual quotation”, i.e. take a clip from a film to create an internet joke, also has Webber's backing.

“I love the creative end of the internet and internet culture. If I ever see a GIF [Graphics Interchange Format] from one of my films, I'm extraordinarily happy that someone has bothered to do that. It can promote the film.”

“I suspect I might find [I have] more in common with the Pirate lady than with some of the other people there,” he concludes.

Monday 4 May: willingness to compromise

Reda is still in the process of coming up with compromise amendments and finding majorities for them, six weeks before the vote. Is she confident?

“I think it depends on the willingness of the shadow rapporteurs to compromise and to take into account the positions of their own group. I am in the position where almost every shadow rapporteur is more conservative than their respective groups,” she said singling out the Liberal group as an example.

“When you look at other groups they have widely diverging opinions and they need to come up with a position that allows them to negotiate meaningful compromise.”

“There is the danger that if we don't compromise then the report will be voted down. I am seriously trying to come up with compromise that a majority of groups can live with.”

Tuesday 16 June: not really visionary

“Geschafft! :)” (Done!) tweets Reda triumphantly.

After fifty minutes of sometimes chaotic voting – some of the electronic voting machines were malfunctioning – almost all of the compromise amendments have been adopted.

Then, the moment of truth, the final vote on the amended report as a whole.

23 of 25 MEPs vote in favour.

“Of course reaching this broad majority came at a price. Some of the most ambitious proposals of my original report were not adopted”, Reda says at a press conference later that day.

“It's not a really visionary report in the end, in the sense that the language is much more careful than the original draft”, she told this website from her office after the vote.

But, she added: “it's an exceptional majority, considering that in the beginning some of the members were really attacking me on a personal level in the committee. I think they've really come around.”

The 28-year-old Pirate deputy thinks that the postponement of the vote helped her convince more MEPs to back the compromises.

“I think it had a lot to do with trust, and we had to build that trust first to be able to actually make those compromises.”

“I think the very fact that I was a new member at the beginning was a huge disadvantage. People didn't know me yet, and they only knew what they read in the media or from their national governments. For example the French government, the French culture minister publicly complained about my nomination at a time when I hadn't published anything. … Of course this has an impact on French MEPs.”

French MEP Cavada, who had campaigned to protect authors’ right, voted to support the report, and claimed the changes as a victory for copyright protection.

He said in a tweet message to Reda that her original version had been “destroyed by almost all political groups”.

But Reda is still happy. It may be less far-reaching than she wanted but it shows what kind of legislative agreement may eventually be possible.

“This is the first adopted official text that is mentioning the possibility of a European copyright at all, so I still consider this a good development.”

German Pirate MEP kicks off EU copyright debate

The European Parliament is gearing up for what is expected to be a tough fight on reforming the EU's fragmented copyright rules. A German Pirate MEP is leading the way.

Interview

Screenwriters call for EU rights on royalties

Robert Alberdingk Thijm has written dozens of TV series, but hardly receives any royalties. He hopes to benefit from an upcoming review of EU copyright law.

Freedom to take photos divides MEPs

Freedom of panorama, which allows you to publish photos of copyrighted buildings, is "under threat", and Pirate MEP Reda is willing to sacrifice her report.

EP adopts 'watered down' copyright report

MEPs have adopted keenly-awaited proposals they'd like to see in the commission’s forthcoming copyright reform, but they were roundly criticised by all sides.

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The success of the new general data protection regulation (GDPR) will depend on whether data protection authorities enforce the new rules - which, in turn, will be at least partly determined by how many people they employ.

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