EU must make copyright fit for a digital future

Copyright rules must protect content creators, while also preserving Europe's cultural heritage and creative industry, says Angelika Niebler.

Angelika Niebler | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Angelika Niebler

10 Oct 2016

The digital evolution has dramatically picked up speed over the last decade. Only 10 or 15 years ago, it was rather unthinkable that almost three quarters of young European internet users between the age of 16 and 24 would listen to music, watch TV series and films or play games online.

Life was what was happening outside the internet. Expressions such as "text and data mining" were unknown to most Europeans, and there were no discussions about accessing content from other countries - nor was there a demand.

So what about today? Think about it for a minute. When was the last time you spent a day offline? No surfing on the internet, no checking emails, no sending chat messages over the internet, no posting of your status on Facebook, no watching IPTV, no staring at your smartphone every two minutes - simply offline for 24 hours. 


If you can hardly remember such a time, you are not alone. Digital technologies influence our daily lives more than we could have ever imagined - and maybe even wanted.

But the digital revolution has also lead to the fact that copyright-related rules and laws that are valid in the offline world cannot simply be transferred to the online world. They need to be adapted to a digital environment.

New business models have emerged, citizens are more mobile than ever before, borders between countries have long become invisible - but that is still not the case in the digital world. Users often experience difficulties when trying to access content from other countries.

Late last year, European digital economy and society Commissioner Günther Oettinger presented a number of initiatives dealing with the urgently needed reform of copyright law. 

A communication in December 2015 was accompanied by a first, rather uncontroversial legislative proposal on ensuring the cross-border portability of online content services in the internal market.

Due to the increasing number of portable devices available on the market, the increasing number of online content services for music, games and videos, as well as the increasing mobility of European citizens, people obviously expect to use the online content services that they have already paid for at home from wherever they are in the European Union.

The most controversial issues on this legislative proposal are not particularly problematic, such as a possible limitation of the period during which online services are made portable (not a good idea considering all of Europe's Erasmus students); how to ensure that it is portability we are granting and not cross-border access (how can that be done without random IP checks?) and how service providers can verify the member state of residence (closed list of criteria vs. delegated act).

Oettinger presented the real 'hot potato' shortly after Parliament's summer break: the long-awaited proposal on copyright reform. 

The main goals of that proposal include creating favourable conditions for cross-border distribution of television and radio programmes online, increasing the availability of audiovisual works on video on demand platforms as well as facilitating the digitalisation and dissemination of works that are out-of-commerce.

Whereas it seems common sense that copyright rules for education, research, cultural heritage and inclusion of disabled people need to be improved, there are two issues that really inflame passions: the so called "transfer of value", as well as a proposed neighbouring right for press publishers.

The situation is the following: The development of new technologies in combination with a much better broadband infrastructure (even though more needs to be done in that area as well) and thanks to platform and other services like YouTube, Google and the rest, you can nowadays basically find everything online, for free. 

While this may seem like a perfect and comfortable situation for European citizens, there is always a second side of the medal. There are also the people who created the content, put a lot of time and effort into their work, had an idea and shaped that idea into a creative work they would like to share with others, people who are trying to make a living out of their creative work. This creative work always has a value, not only for the people who created it.

It goes without saying that we need to have an in-depth look at the proposal made by the European Commission and see whether their suggestion on how to tackle that problem is the right way. 

But no matter what the outcome of the probably tough negotiations will be, we need to ask ourselves how we can ensure in the future that creative works and (cultural) content that the EU can be so proud of still has a value - a value that leads to a fair remuneration for rights-holders. It is our duty to preserve our European cultural heritage and our creative industry.


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