EU to Roll Back Artists' Digital Rights?

A dispute hinges on whether "collecting societies" should levy fees on computers and MP3 players, plus receive payments for downloads

European musicians suffered a double whammy on Monday (30 October) as news broke the European Commission and a leading UK think-tank are both pushing to cut back artists' digital music copyright privileges.

Brussels will shortly suggest that authors' rights societies, known as "collecting societies," should not be able to levy fees on equipment such as computers and MP3 players as well as charging copyright fees when customers download tunes.

"No obligation for further payment in another form may arise in relation to the private copying by the consumer," Brussels' 13-page draft legal "recommendation" due out in November but seen by Blooomberg, states.

It adds that EU member countries must "ensure" any copy fees "take into account" new digital rights management (DRM) technology - which limits the number of copies private users can make - with fees on some types of small-scale copying activity to be made illegal.

Under current EU law in 19 member states, artitsts' collecting societies pocket up to €30 on the price of every MP3 player sold, for example - on the legal basis that the equipment will be used to make private copies of songs in an unquantiafiable way.

The computer makers' lobby, the BSA, says hardware levies on MP3 players and other digital music gear such as blank CDs and computer harddrives was worth €560 million last year but will spiral into the billions as the European digital music industry mushrooms in the next five years.

In France alone, the levy on MP3 players caused €217 million of losses for producers last year, the BSA states, with lack of transparency and multiple law suits surrounding levy claims creating corporate uncertainty in one of Europe's fastest-growing sectors.

"The commission sees it as chaos, as a mess they need to clean up," the BSA's Francisco Mignorelli told EUobserver on the issue back in September.

COMMISSION TAKES PRO-BUSINESS LINE. Artists' groups warn that DRM technology is in its infancy, however, while accusing single market commissioner, Charlie McCreevy of bending to friends in the big business lobby while seeing European music in blinkered "market only" terms.

"Since the early days the importance of markets is inbred into European Commission thinking, but in his memoirs [one of the EU founders] Jean Monnet said he wished cultural diversity was a foundation of the union," artists' representative, Pia Raug, said.

The collecting societies argue that 10 percent of their MP3 et al levies income is spent on promoting small, local artists, while recent trends in EU digital rights policy will help major record labels and technology firms dominate the market with bland, mainstream products.

European consumer groups such as BEUC are also worried about strong EU endorsement for DRM technology, which sees computer firms curbing consumer freedoms in a profit-oriented and largely unmonitored way.

"We have not yet seen any DRMs that are acceptable [from a consumers' rights point of view]", BEUC's Cornelia Knutter indicated.

UK STUDY UNDERMINES RIGHTS PHILOSOPHY. The same day the Bloomberg news broke, leading UK think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), published a study suggesting that any attempt to curb private copy-making in the digital era is out of date.

"The idea of all-rights reserved doesn't make sense for the digital era and it doesn't make sense to have a law that everybody breaks," IPPR deputy direcor Ian Kearns told the BBC after calling for a new "private right to copy" law to modernise the sector.

Under current UK legislation dating back 300 years, it is illegal to make private copies of documents without the author's permission even though 55 percent of people polled by the IPPR do so regularly and 59 percent don't know they are breaking the law.

The IPPR study also argues against artists' recent proposals to extend European copyright for performers of songs - as opposed to authors of songs - from 50 years to 95 years in line with US practice.

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