30th Mar 2023

McCreevy swings toward computer lobby on digital rights

The European Commission's upcoming memo on "private copy levies" looks set to come down on the side of computer companies instead of artists, single market commissioner Charlie McCreevy signalled in a speech at a Creative Rights conference in Brussels on Wednesday (29 November) hosted by Blueprint Partners and EUobserver.

Private copy levies are a system in 20 out of 25 EU member states that see artists' "collecting societies" or trade unions skim a fee off the price of any DVD recorder, MP3 player and blank disk sold on the legal basis these will be used to make unlicensed private copies, with Brussels set to issue a legal "recommendation" on the issue next month.

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  • McCreevy (r) - seeking a "delicate balance" but showing more sympathy for business concerns (Photo: EUobserver)

"We are concerned that the operation of some current schemes for fair compensation may be disruptive to trade in the internal market...and whether full account is being taken of the increased use of technological means to protect copyrighted works," the commissioner said, echoing the arguments of computer firms that want the €1.6 billion a year levies regime scrapped.

"We also feel that greater clarity and accountability in how these funds are managed and distributed would be greatly in the interests of all concerned," he added, in what sounds like the computer lobbyists' portrait of artists' collecting groups as an out-of-date, unprofessional bunch that stand in the way of a multi-billion euro digital arts industry.

The commissioner's remark that "where a rightsholder suffers harm as a result of the private copying exception, they should be compensated" also recognised one of the central arguments of the computer companies - that artists' groups have not legally demonstrated that private copies cause "harm" in line with the 2001 EU copyright directive.

Referring back to an earlier recommendation in October 2005 - that record labels should be able to get pan-EU digital music licences from any of the 25 EU member states artists' trade unions instead of separate licences for each country - Mr McCreevy added that "there are signs that the recommendation has had a positive effect."

The recommendation - a non-binding legal tool that gives guidance to stakeholders on what the commission would like to see or may legislate on in future - has already seen artists' societies in the UK and Germany break ranks with European colleagues by granting pan-EU licences for their Anglo-American music repertoire to EMI, one of the world's largest record labels.

The European Parliament is pushing Mr McCreevy to in future propose a binding directive on how to manage EU digital rights to take account of the explosive growth in online music and video sales, but the commissioner praised the softer "recommendation" approach while promising to keep the case "under review."

Brussels has soul, too

Mr McCreevy's speech - delivered to over 200 players from all sides of the spectrum including Yahoo's global head for digital music Robert Roback and Danish songwriter and artists' rights campaigner Pia Raug - also addressed artists' fears that giving the market free rein could see big business push mainstream musical "products" while suffocating smaller creative outfits.

"I am very sensitive to the cause of cultural diversity and to the particular needs of small member states and their creative artists," the former Irish finance minister, known for his free market-oriented philosophy, stated, citing his respect for artists who "help human beings make sense of the world" and who "need bread as well as roses to survive."

But his remarks on "striking a delicate balance" between protecting cultural diversity and releasing digital market potential took a swipe at artists' groups worries over big business, saying "There are some who pit culture against commerce. Who see any change as a zero-sum game. Such simplistic arguments are as damaging as they are wrong."

The 57-year old commissioner also displayed knowledge of digital jargon such as "long-tailing" - the practice of putting back catalogues of music online - and new trends such as free-video website YouTube and the rise of music and video content on mobile phones, while poking fun at himself as a man "driven mad by some of the more irritating ring-tones" downloaded these days.

Artists' trade unions must change

He confessed the pace of change in technology and "new ways to enjoy content" has left Brussels policy-makers "working hard to keep up" with the digital "revolution" that is set to see music downloads in Europe grow into a €3.9 billion market by 2011, when one out of every three songs bought is predicted to come off the web.

But Mr McCreevy's central message - that Europe should stop "looking on change with profound suspicion" and that the 150-year old network of artists' trade unions should be more "open to change" - indicates that recent pleas from singers like Robin Gibb or filmakers such as Pedro Almodovar to protect the status quo have not found favour in Brussels.

"Policy-makers have a responsibility to listen to different viewpoints and to consider matters in the round. But eventually, we have to reach a point of decision and to act," Mr McCreevy stated.

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