Over this past week, the Members of the European Parliament have been deliberating over a new proposal for a pan-European copyright licensing system for digital content. Proposed on Tuesday in Strasbourg by Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Information Society and Media, and Meglena Kuneva, Commissioner for Consumer Affairs, the new plan would pave the way for a multi-territorial licensing regime for online digital content (music, games, films, books) across the 27-nation European Union. The commissioners intend to introduce legislation to create the pan-EU copyright license within the year.
Although the EU has enacted the Copyright Directive – an effort to standardize copyright laws with WIPO – each EU member maintains its own copyright laws. With distinct laws and licensing societies in each country, it becomes expensive and onerous for retailers to negotiate copyright terms for each country within the EU. The result is that many retailers are limiting sales of media, both online and in traditional formats, to the country that they are based in because of the complexity of multiple and varying domestic copyright laws and the fees that have to be paid to each country’s licensing society.
The restriction of national territorial licensing is also felt by the consumer. Where businesses face increased expenses to provide their products and services, the consumer often bears the brunt of these costs. With some larger businesses such as Apple’s iTunes, they are able to facilitate separate online retail systems for consumers in each country. However, the complexity of national copyright systems and the varying copyright fees in each country is reflected in the differing prices consumers pay in different countries (e.g. U2’s The Best of 1980-1990 sells for 15,99 € in Germany and 9,99 € in France)
For smaller businesses, however, pan-European access is simply not feasible. Thus, to avoid selling abroad and dealing with potential legal complications with the consumer’s domestic copyright rules, online retailers often restrict their customer base by requiring customers to use a credit card issued in the country that the retailers are based (e.g, try purchasing anything from fnac and it will require a French credit card)
Reding and Kuvena’s proposal intends to relieve the consumer from the limits of the current fragmented system. One of the main priorities in the proposal is to ensure that consumers’ access to online content is not restricted by where a company or website is based. On their eYou Guide website – designed to educate consumers regarding online sales in the EU – Reding iterates that “National borders should no longer complicate European consumers’ lives when they go online to buy a book or download a song…we need to ensure that there is a single market for consumers as well as businesses on the web.” Reding and Kuvena propose that this consumer liberation is found in the proposal to create cross-border copyright licenses that would allow consumers in any EU state to purchase copyrighted digital content from any other EU state on standardized terms. These standardized terms would also clearly delineate the rights of use for the consumer across the board.
Although the details for implementation are yet to be finalized, if the European Parliament approves their proposal, this could be a significant and exciting step forward for both businesses and consumers in Europe. Retailers would be saved the costs of negotiating copyright deals complying with the widely varying domestic laws of each country and would only have to pay licensing fees to one central office instead of to each country’s licensing societies. Not only would these savings be passed on to the consumer, the consumer would also enjoy the added ease of purchasing digital content from anywhere in the EU with any credit card. A standardized pan-European copyright regime would also bring confidence and peace of mind to consumers and retailers who no longer have to worry about potential conflicting domestic copyright laws for sales or use of digital content.
As the EU contemplates this next step, it also begs to ask: What about a pan-North American copyright proposal? Although North America is certainly much less fragmented than the EU, with the large amount of cross-border interaction there may perhaps be a movement brewing for a pan-North American copyright regime. It may even be argued that with only three parties, a pan-North American copyright licensing regime for online sales would be more feasible than the EU’s. Some may scoff at the idea of integration, but the same naysayers also saw the implementation of NAFTA. While the future of such a proposal may not be in our near future, the copyright world is eagerly awaiting the EU’s upcoming decision.