Günther Oettinger, the former EU commissioner for digital economy and society, has pledged to push through controversial reforms to European copyright law, intended to better protect news providers in the online environment.
Mr. Oettinger, who is now the EU’s budget commissioner, said the matter must be dealt with at the highest political level. He would “fight hard” for the proposals, he said, with the full support of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
The draft laws propose a special category of copyright for press content and would clarify publishers' legal claims to the entirety of the material they publish online. This should make it easier for them to negotiate the terms of trade with companies who wish to reuse and monetize the content. Called a "neighboring right", the new law will "correct the current imbalance whereby publishers fund the creation of the content and other companies routinely siphon off the revenue-earning potential, undermining publishers’ ability to invest in professional journalism," said Angela Mills Wade, the director of European Publishers Council, an industry lobby.
The proposed new rules, first put forward last September, have drawn considerable resistance from civil society groups as well as major online players like Google and Facebook. It remains unclear if they have majority support in the European Council and European Parliament.
The European press landscape is like a Serengeti, it needs special protection. Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources
Mr. Oettinger, a German national, painted a grim picture of the current state of news copyright. “The European press landscape is like a Serengeti, it needs special protection,” he told Handelsblatt. The sector is highly fragmented and too weak to launch a rival to platforms like Google News, he said. News providers need a stronger negotiating position to be rewarded fairly for their work: “If we get this wrong, it could have a terrible impact on European press diversity in the next ten years,” he said.
The European Commission proposal would force web platforms to pay content providers even for short extracts. In addition, portals like Facebook and Youtube would have to actively pursue copyright infringement on their sites. Mr. Oettinger said the new licensing arrangements would also benefit musicians, currently in a weak position vis-à-vis streaming services like Sweden’s Spotify.
The commissioner said he was confident the reforms would become law this year. They are set to be approved by the relevant European Parliament committees before summer, with negotiations beginning at ministerial level in September.
However, there has been strong opposition to the proposals from some quarters. Recently, 70 members of the European parliament submitted a motion to scrap the plans. One of the parliamentarians, Julia Reda of the Pirate Party, said the rules would stifle new online business models. “In fact, the proposals support media concentration, since many readers would head back to well-known brands.” The party claims that the new rules are a bureaucratic attack on free speech.
The proposals have the support of the French, Italian and Spanish governments. The German government has not yet taken a firm position. Mr. Oettinger emphasized to Handelsblatt that action was needed at the highest level: “Copyright reform is of the highest strategic significance. It must be dealt with by top decision makers.”
Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. Ruth Berschens heads Handelsblatt's Brussels office, leading coverage of European policy. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].