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EC lobs grenades at copyright's Ancien Régime

Move over, old men

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The leading digital Eurocrat Neelie Kroes has taken aim at copyright middlemen, implicitly comparing them to the pre-Revolution French monarchy.

"All revolutions reveal, in a new and less favourable light, the privileges of the gatekeepers of the 'Ancien Régime'. It is no different in the case of the internet revolution, which is unveiling the unsustainable position of certain content gatekeepers and intermediaries. No historically entrenched position guarantees the survival of any cultural intermediary. Like it or not, content gatekeepers risk being sidelined if they do not adapt to the needs of both creators and consumers of cultural goods."

Ancien Régime is a pejorative term referring to personal patronage systems organised around the king and grasping local nobles in Pre-Revolutionary France.

Kroes also told Forum d'Avignon - Les rencontres internationales de la culture, de l’économie et des médias Avignon, on Friday, that the Commission would soon draw up draft legislation on orphan works, private copying levies, and on the management of the collection societies. The goal has been to make licensing easier across Europe.

While Kroes described copyright as an incentive to the creation of new works, Kroes said she thought "the system has ended up giving a more prominent role to intermediaries than to artists".

She continued: "It irritates the public, who often cannot access what artists want to offer and leaves a vacuum which is served by illegal content, depriving the artists of their well-deserved remuneration."

That's certainly true of TV, movies and books - less so for music. Although music licensing remains cursed by territorial arrangements and huge confusion about who has which rights, particularly on the publishing side.

Rights-holders shouldn't be able to delay the development of the European mega-library, Europeana, either, says Kroes.

"Europeana could be condemned to be a niche player rather than a world leader if it cannot be granted licences and share the full catalogue of written and audio-visual material held in our cultural institutions," she said. "And it will be frustrated in that ambition if it cannot team up with commercial partners on terms that are consistent with public policy and with the interests of right-holders. And all sorts of other possible initiatives, public and private, will also be frustrated."

She didn't elaborate on the pan-European licensing proposals, which implicitly means new orders for how collection societies work. The EU and the societies have been at loggerheads for 15 years.

Users of licences (eg, broadcasters and more recently internet service companies such as Spotify, Apple and Google) want a low-cost one-stop shop for licensing material, but are faced with territorial national monopolies. The EU has backed competition between societies.

But the collection societies fear that if the users are permitted to shop around for the lowest rates, those licences will be offered for peanuts by some outfit in a rural backwater - Elbonia: Your next (and only) music destination? - driving the rightful royalties paid to creators down to zero (or as close to zero as the outfit can get away with). This means creators in Europe are guaranteed to get nothing out of the digital use of their works, or any kind of digital content market.

Ten years ago the societies developed a compromise - the Santiago Agreement. Under this proposal national societies could administer other territories' rights, but an Apple or a Google would operating in a given country would still need to deal with that country's monopoly.

Kroes speech significantly ratchets up the hostility towards the regional monopolies - there's very little in the way of an olive branch, here. ®

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