Wednesday 25 April 2018

Copyright still faces taxing times

MEP Catherine Stihler
MEP Catherine Stihler
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

The European Commission's plans to reform copyright have been slowly trundling along for 15 years. The stated aim is as follows: "Europe's creative content should not be locked-up, but it should also be highly protected, in particular to improve the remuneration possibilities for our creators."

But there are concerns that "highly protected" may equate to protectionism.

Last Tuesday, British MEP Catherine Stihler outlined some of these concerns to a room of publishers and policy wonks at the Institute of International and European Affairs on North Great George's Street. She knows what she's talking about. She is the copyright rapporteur for the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee of the European Parliament.

But before getting lost in the nitty-gritty of European policy, it's worth reminding ourselves why copyright - and copyright reform - matters.

"It affects your day-to-day existence. It affects how you digest news, what music you listen to," says Stihler. "How we look at and access content legally is important and copyright comes into that space. But in the digital world with user-generated content and the innovation that the internet allows, how do we make sure that copyright doesn't stifle that? I've always said that copyright reform is all about balance, and how we get that balance right to ensure that people who create content are fairly remunerated and citizens and users are not discriminated against."

The most contentious element of the proposed copyright reform is the creation of a new right for publishers. It's been called the neighbouring right, a link tax or even a Google tax. It would mean social networks and online aggregation services would need to pay for the privilege of linking to a publisher's story if they display a snippet of that story. Some advocates have even gone so far as to say this will prevent the spread of fake news. But there's one big problem with this approach. It doesn't work.

German legislators introduced something similar in 2013 - the Leistungsschutzrecht für Presseverlege. It's a legislative mouthful, and they made a meal of it. The law prevented aggregators from displaying excerpts of articles unless they paid a fee. Google, which was probably the cash cow the Germans thought they could milk, responded by making the German Google News an opt-in service. Faced with a decline in traffic, German publishers opted in one by one. Axel Springer's titles were last to return to the fold, in late 2014.

In Spain, the "AEDE Canon" was enacted in 2014, but unlike the German law, publishers couldn't waive the right to a fee. In response Google shut its news service in Spain. Who suffered? Publishers, that's who. They suffered an 8pc to 15pc dip in traffic.

Stihler isn't a fan of this new form of copyright. "It's looking for analogue solutions in a digital world," she says. "There's no impact assessment. It appears to me that those that are saying that this new right would solve the problem of fake news are delusional. It's only about money for certain publishers. It's also disingenuous; why would you create a new right that's failed in Germany and failed in Spain and put that new right across the whole of the European Union?"

Neither is she a fan of how some publishers have lobbied MEPs. "It's quite surprising that these organisations are taking such a hard-line approach. No compromise. And if you're against them you're the enemy. That's no way to conduct ourselves in what is a crucially important proposal which will become law for the digital single market."

Stihler also flagged issues with two other elements of the proposed copyright reform. One relates to text and data mining, which would see results of research hidden behind technical, legal and financial barriers.

The other relates to a content-monitoring proposal, which states that internet platforms hosting large amounts of user-generated content must monitor user behaviour to identify and prevent copyright infringement. This, Stihler maintains, would result in mass surveillance.

"It might be print publishers, it might be academic publishers, it might be music publishers, musicians themselves or record companies; the complexity of copyright is very real," says Stihler.

"You've got very different players wanting slightly different things that are about making Europe more effective in terms of its single digital market. And if we can't do some basic things to break down false barriers and ensure citizens can access content that they do pay for, then there's something very wrong."

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