EU Digital Agenda VP: Need to “Sideline Content Gatekeepers”

EU Digital Agenda VP: Need to “Sideline Content Gatekeepers”

Neelie Kroes, European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda, points out that the “Internet revolution” is finally “unveiling the unsustainable position of certain content gatekeepers and intermediaries,” and that instead of a “dysfunctional system based on a series of cultural Berlin walls” we need “new business models that better fit the digital age.”

A number of people are starting to wake up to the fact that in many countries advances in technology long ago outpaced similar advances in copyright laws, and in many cases the latter has become an obstacle to the former.

Neelie Kroes, European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda, is now calling for a for a thorough debate on the “fragmented” and “ill-adapted” copyright system that currently exists in the hopes for a “return to sense.”

“Taking a long-term perspective we can see three major technological revolutions since the development of the written word that have affected the dissemination of culture,” she says. “First, the printing press. Second, the industrial revolution. And now third, the information and communications technologies revolution.”

Culture, she points out, is not something that can be bought and sold. It cannot be “separated from society” based on the whims of others.

“There is no culture without people, and people change,” she says. “It has always been that way.”

More plainly is the fact that each cultural revolution has followed a “well-worn path” of artists seeking out other artists and creative minds, art limited only by what we think possible.

“Art enriches itself by eliminating artificial barriers between people such as borders between countries,” says Kroes.

“Just as artists have always traveled, to join sponsors, avoid wars or learn from masters far from home, now digital technology helps them to cross borders and break down barriers. Their work can be available to all. In a sense, the internet is the realization of the Renaissance dream of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: all knowledge in one place.”

However, each cultural revolution, she points out, inevitably reveals the arbitrary and capricious nature of so-called “content gatekeepers” that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Think of Johannes Gutenberg and how he upset the natural order of things by putting the printed word in the hands of the masses.

“All revolutions reveal, in a new and less favorable 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,” she continues. “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.”

Countries like the UK, which, according to a survey last year has the world’s worst copyright laws, allow copyright holders to dictate exactly when, where, how, and if a a copyrighted work can be used. That’s hardly a way to protect artists and results in copyright laws losing all credibility with consumers.

The MPAA has long maintained that making even one backup copy of a purchased DVD is illegal, the notion being that the price of a DVD is predicated on the “notion of certain use rights associated with certain price points.”

Kroes says the digital age provides an “incredible opportunity for the artists and creators of our times, and also for their public,” and that copyright holders need not fear the Internet as many of them have.

“Just like cinema did not kill theatre, nor did television kill radio,” she adds. “The internet won’t kill any other media either.”

With MPAA global ticket sales up 30% since 2005, and musicians’ income up 66% over the last decade the truth is self-evident.

“For 200 years, it (copyright) has proved a powerful way to remunerate our artists and to build our creative industries. But copyright is not an end in itself. Copyright exists to ensure that artists will continue to create,” says Kroes. “Yet we see more and more often that it is not respected. In some sectors, the levels of piracy demand that we ask ourselves what are we doing wrong. We must ensure that copyright serves as a building block, not a stumbling block.”

Part of the problem is that copyright holders insist on arbitrary regional content distribution timelines in which one part of the world sees content delivered well ahead of others elsewhere. Piracy has always been the great equalizer in this respect and P2P crackdowns don’t address the underlying consumer demand being ignored by copyright holders.

“Today our fragmented copyright system is ill-adapted to the real essence of art, which has no frontiers. Instead, that system has ended up giving a more prominent role to intermediaries than to artists,” furthers Kroes. “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. And copyright enforcement is often entangled in sensitive questions about privacy, data protection or even net neutrality.”

Her solution is to begin a debate on the problem so that Europe can create a single legal digital market that looks past national and corporate self-interest, and establishes an altogether new approach to copyright.

“Instead of a dysfunctional system based on a series of cultural Berlin walls, I want a return to sense,” she says. “A system where there is scope to create new opportunities for artists and creators, and new business models that better fit the digital age. We want to help you seize the opportunities of this age.”

According to a UK survey from earlier this year nearly three out of four (73%) of those surveyed didn’t know what they’re legally allowed to copy or record, and eight out of ten (80%) thought that copyright law should be updated to reflect the reality of new digital technologies.

“Artists cast light on our world; our job is to let the light shine in,” says Kroes.

I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Stay tuned.

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