Europe Unveils Broad Changes to Copyright Law

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New proposals would allow pan-European video-on-demand, strengthen the IP rights of journalists and publishers, and force YouTube to use technology to automatically detect copyright-protected works.

The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, has unveiled its new, highly controversial plans to overhaul and harmonize copyright law across its 28 member states.

The proposals, unveiled by European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker in a speech on Wednesday, would make it easier for video-on-demand services (VOD) to transmit programs across the entire EU; strengthens online copyright protection for journalists and newspaper and magazine publishers; and introduces stricter oversight requirements for online platforms like YouTube.

All of the proposals are controversial and have been sharply criticized.

Some elements of the draft proposal of the Commission's plans had already leaked and drew fire from all sides. Critics say it could do serious damage both to legacy media companies and internet upstarts.

The draft proposals will now be put to the European Parliament for revision and approval before being sent to individual member states for ratification.

For the entertainment industry, changes to licensing rules for VOD streaming are of the greatest concern. Currently, European television networks acquire licenses to programming, such as U.S. films and TV series, for their own country exclusively. The new proposals, according to Juncker, will include a legal mechanism to make it easier for broadcasters to stream their programming EU-wide on online services, such as the BBC's iPlayer. This “will give more choice to consumers,” said Juncker.

But content producers argue that such pan-European access could severely damage their business model, which often relies on using exclusive territory-by-territory licensing to generate more revenue. Earlier this summer, executives from 15 commercial TV companies, including Britain's ITV and Sky, France’s Canal Plus, and RTL in Germany warned that changes allowing pan-European licensing would have a “chilling effect on content investment” across the continent. One fear is the “buy 1, get 27 free” effect: that broadcasters from smaller European countries could acquire a local license for a film or TV series cheaply and then stream the show across the EU, undercutting sales to larger nations.

Some broadcasters, however, welcomed Wednesday's proposals.

“This is a narrowly targeted proposal that the European Commission itself says ‘will have a limited impact on copyright’ and is not intended to prevent content being licensed on a “territorial” basis," said Sky in a statement. "We look forward to working with the Commission to ensure its proposal works for customers and the industry as intended, so as to maintain the conditions in which continuing investment in content production and distribution can flourish.”

Juncker said the new Copyright Directive would also strengthen the rights of news publishers vis-a-vis online aggregators like Google News and of music and video producers vis-a-vis video-sharing platforms such as YouTube and Dailymotion.

One proposal will require online platforms to use technology to automatically detect “songs or audiovisual works” identified by rights holders, which the platforms will then be required to either authorize, and compensate rights holders for, or remove. The Commission is also suggesting giving newspaper and magazine publishers copyright protection rights similar to those enjoyed by European film and music producers. This would mean sites like Google News would have to pay to use original articles taken from European news websites.

In his speech, Juncker did not go into the details of the new plan, but the draft text leaked earlier this month proposed giving newspaper and other journalistic writings a 20-year online copyright and requiring online aggregators to acquire a license from the copyright holder before posting even a couple of sentences from the article text.

That's an idea — introducing a so-called ancillary copyright for journalistic work — that has been tried on the national level in both Germany and Spain and failed both times.

But Gunther Oettinger, European Commissioner for digital economy and society, said a pan-European approach would work. "Because Google may be able to do without a single market like Spain, but no global company can afford to do without the market of the entire European Union. … And if they want to do business here, they have to play by our rules."

Vice commissioner Andrus Ansip, however, said the proposals did not include "taxing hyperlinks," dismissing speculation that new rules would mean companies and individuals would have to pay just for linking to copyright-protected materials.

Less controversial is a third platform of the copyright overhaul, which would make digital materials easier to access and use for students, teachers and the visually disabled across Europe. The Commission would like to add exceptions to EU copyright law to allow educational institutions to use copyright-protected material in online courses, to make it easier for European researchers to use so-called data mining to analyze large sets of data from across the continent, and to let cultural heritage institutions make digital copies of works to preserve them for future generations. The Commission is also proposing legislation to increase the number of published works for the blind or otherwise visually impaired, to “ensure that copyright does not constitute a barrier to the full participation in society of all citizens.”

The copyright overhaul is part of the European Union's broader move toward what it calls a single digital market, an attempt to eliminate barriers to online trade between EU countries. As part of this effort, Juncker on Wednesday announced proposals to improve online access for European citizens. The EU's goal, he said, is that all European households should have access to online services with a download speed of at least 100 Mbps and that all urban areas, as well as major roads and railways, should have uninterrupted 5G coverage, the fifth generation of wireless communication systems. Juncker said that 5G services should be commercially available in at least one major city in each EU member state by 2020.

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