When the European copyright directive was written in 2001, Facebook and YouTube did not exist and Wikipedia was yet to receive widespread attention. The tools to access, create, record, remix and share knowledge and culture were not yet so ubiquitous and affordable as to be in everybody’s pocket. Now the new commission has announced that these rules will be brought up to speed with the modern digital environment.
Throughout the years, media companies have insisted that 'the sky is falling'. Instead of understanding the digital revolution as a unique opportunity for growth and adapting accordingly, we got brutal anti-file-sharing scare campaigns and legislative proposals that encroach on civil liberties. Early innovators like Napster were sued out of existence, and it took companies like Apple to drag the industry towards realising its now exploding digital revenues. Yet today, Europeans often find themselves locked out from accessing content online legally due to strictly geographically limited licensing schemes and byzantine legal differences.
So what should the new digital economy and society commissioner, Günther Oettinger, and his vice-president for the digital single market, Andrus Ansip, do to ensure all Europeans benefit from this paradigm shift? They don't need to take a Pirate's word for it. "We have endlessly assessed, examined and analysed. Now it's time to act", former digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes pleaded in July - when copyright was unfortunately not part of her portfolio. "The EU copyright framework is fragmented, inflexible, and often irrelevant. It should be a stimulant to openness, innovation and creativity, not a tool for of obstruction, limitation and control", she pointed out. Last winter, the commission's consultation on copyright reform met with an unprecedented level of interest, receiving 11,000 public reactions. Clearly, EU citizens are frustrated by the fragmented and outdated copyright framework.
"It is a common view that copyright exceptions should be mandatory and harmonised"
Compiling a specific to-do list is almost as easy as searching the consultation report for the phrase "vast majority". It's all there: "The vast majority of end users consider that the EU should pursue the idea of a single copyright title". "The vast majority consider that the current protection terms are inappropriate". It is a common view that copyright exceptions should be mandatory and harmonised. A number of suggestions have already been put forward to introduce new exceptions, such as user-generated content, file sharing between individuals, and text and data mining. Rights holders should be prevented from limiting the use of exceptions by technological measures.
Instead of throwing his weight behind these proposals, Oettinger recently indicated he might be considering expanding Germany's ancillary copyright law - dubbed the 'Google tax' - to all member states, despite it having just colossally backfired. He has pondered new levies and cautioned that it may take a year or longer before he makes a move. On other digital issues, he floated the idea of allowing telecoms companies to tie consumers into ever-longer contracts, and sided with the previous commission's inadequate net neutrality plans instead of supporting the parliament's corrections.
It appears that Oettinger has yet to realise the fortune of joining a field with a drawer full of proposals ripe for legislative action. He has inherited a unit of skilled copyright experts and Ansip has made an excellent impression so far. Ansip has already agreed to my proposal to field questions from the public online, building rapport with the net community even before his first day on the job. Their joint task of common-sense copyright reform enjoys the support of both the commission president and the concerned public. It's up to MEPs to ensure that this opportunity to improve Europe's digital society is seized.