If Europe’s new Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker thought he’d notch up an easy populist win last summer when he targeted copyright reform, he’s had a rude awakening. Instead, he’s walked into a firestorm.
Critics argued that sidekick Commission VP Andrus Ansip’s favourite proposals on territoriality would “Americanise” Europe and destroy the continent’s diversity, as financing drained away from backing distinctive local products.
Now the Labour party in the UK has added its voice to the criticism, strongly arguing against one of the radical proposals the Commission is expected to reveal next month: forcing pan-European licensing on producers, ending "geo-blocking".
Why the fuss?
Small European cultural businesses rely on territorial licensing for their income – particularly for niche regional and language goods. Being coerced into doing trade with people they don’t want to trade with, on terms they don’t want, will result in capital fleeing the sector, they say. Vice President Ansip – who was tasked in December to reform copyright – wants territorial licensing ended.
Poland fired the first shot back, by arguing that outlawing territorial licensing would lead to Hollywood and Europop replacing the rich cultural diversity of today's European market.
A cultural policy review prepared for The Labour Party agrees that territoriality is fundamental to cultural businesses' trade. Labour’s Creative Industries review – chaired by former UK Film Council director John Woodward – canvassed opinion for over a year and concluded that the EU’s forced licensing geo-blocking initiative would be catastrophic. Singling out comments by Juncker and his henchmen Commissioners Ansip and “H-dot” Oettinger, the review states:
The financing of, for example, television programmes and independent feature films is largely based on the ability to sell rights territory-by-territory. The release patterns of premium content are also determined on a territorial basis to take account of a variety of national factors (e.g. differences in school holiday dates), so as to maximise audience reach and thus revenues. So if geo-blocking were to be abolished, it would be possible for a film to be available online across the EU via one member state whilst it was still playing in its exclusive cinema window in another EU territory. In this way, the abolition of geo-blocking would seriously undermine current UK business models for a variety of other rights-based media.
"The Government should ensure that IP rights holders are able to continue to geo-block copyright material online within the EU and strongly resist any wholesale reforms of the copyright framework in Europe,” it recommends. Large as well as small cultural organisations would pay the price, the review continues:
“Furthermore, UK broadcasters, whether supported by a licence fee, by advertising or by subscription, would also be affected adversely if they became unable to geo-block their online transmissions,” the report also notes: anyone could watch the BBC without paying the license fee, and advertisers and subscription broadcasters like Sky couldn’t target territories where the market demand is higher.
“Substantive reforms in this area, unsupported by a strong evidence base, could diminish cultural diversity rather than improving it, whilst also destabilising the UK content industries,” the report adds.