Saturday, November 19, 2011

BPN 1886: EC Commissioner Neelie Kroes on copyright

On November 19, Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission, responsible for the Digital Agenda, held a speech at the Forum d'Avignon in the historical city of Avignon in France on the issue of copyright. Besides the text of the speech, video-interviews are available.

Who feeds the artist?
The creative sector is a unique source for growth, both economic and social. And it's something we do well in Europe. The current winner of the Oscar for Best Picture; the bestselling album in the US this year; 7 out of the last 10 winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: what do they have in common? They all come from the EU.
This is essential to our image abroad, and essential to our economic future. And if we want it to stay this way, we must be able to support those who create art. We must be concerned about the fate of Europe's struggling artists and creators. Art feeds the soul. But who feeds the artist?
Often, this debate focuses on copyright, especially enforcing copyright. But this isn't the whole story.
For a moment, let's take a step back from the tools, and remember what we are trying to achieve. Legally, we want a well-understood and enforceable framework. Morally, we want dignity, recognition and a stimulating environment for creators. Economically, we want financial reward so that artists can benefit from their hard work and be incentivised to create more.
I am an unconditional supporter of these objectives.
But let's ask ourselves, is the current copyright system the right and only tool to achieve our objectives? Not really, I'm afraid. We need to keep on fighting against piracy, but legal enforceability is becoming increasingly difficult; the millions of dollars invested trying to enforce copyright have not stemmed piracy. Meanwhile citizens increasingly hear the word copyright and hate what is behind it. Sadly, many see the current system as a tool to punish and withhold, not a tool to recognise and reward.
Speaking of economic reward: if that is the aim of our current copyright system, we're failing here too.
1000 euros a month is not much to live off. Often less than the minimum wage. But most artists, and not only the young ones at the early stages of their career, have to do so. Half the fine artists in the UK, half the "professional" authors in Germany, and, I am told, an incredible 97.5% of one of the biggest collecting society's members in Europe, receive less than that paltry payment of 1000 euros a month for their copyright works. Of course, the best-paid in this sector earn a lot, and well done to them. But at the bottom of the pyramid are a whole mass of people who need independent means or a second job just to survive.
This is a devastatingly hard way to earn a living. The crisis will only make this worse, as public and private spending on arts, so often seen as discretionary, feels the squeeze. This must be a worry to one of the most valuable and unique sectors in Europe: it is certainly a worry to me.
We need to go back to basics and put the artist at the centre, not only of copyright law, but of our whole policy on culture and growth. In times of change, we need creativity, out-of-the-box thinking: creative art to overcome this difficult period and creative business models to monetise the art. And for this we need flexibility in the system, not the straitjacket of a single model. The platforms, channels and business models by which content is produced, distributed and used can be as varied and innovative as the content itself.
ICT can help here. In all sorts of sectors, ICT can help artists connect with their audience, directly and cheaply. And it can help audiences find and enjoy material that suits their specific needs, interests and tastes.
And ICT can help in other ways too, supporting a system of recognition and reward. A Global Repertoire database to find out what belongs to whom. Tracking technologies, to permit a totally transparent process for artists and intermediaries to find out who is looking at what artwork when and to distribute revenues accordingly. Digitisation, to make artworks available for instant transmission to distant fans.
Look at Cloud computing: it presents a totally new way of purchasing, delivering and consuming cultural works - music, books, films - which will certainly raise new questions about how licensing should function in an optimal way.
It's not just about technology: smart legislation can help, too. We need to find the right rules, the right model to feed art, and feed artists. We need the legal framework to be flexible. This is my recipe, my commandment, my bumper-sticker to nurture creation. The digital world changes quickly, and if allowed to do so can permit creativity in all stages of the chain. So we shouldn't prescribe a particular model, but set a framework allowing many new models to flourish.
In particular, we should make it as easy as possible to license, not obstruct that process while making sure that the system efficiently secures the interests of artists themselves. This is what we are doing at the Commission with our future legislative proposal on collective rights management.
But as I said, it's not only about copyright legislation. Take tax, for example. Isn't it just common-sense to think that eBooks should benefit from the same reduced VAT rates as physical books? The legal regime – the EU's own, I admit – makes it illegal to do that. Not just discouraged, but illegal. Personally, I find this very difficult to explain. Thankfully, my colleague Algirdas Semeta is preparing a new strategy on VAT. This subject will certainly be debated.
Another example is the audiovisual industry. I know how important "windowing" is for the industry under current business models and I don't want to take decisions for the business, it's not my job. As new ways of watching films develop in the market, binding legislation dictating the sequence and period of release windows seems inflexible – and may make it harder, not easier, to provide and purchase content legally.
A system of rewarding art, in all its dimensions, must be flexible and adaptable enough to cope with these new environments. Or else we will kill innovation and damage artists' interests.
These are just a few examples of rigid legislation from the pre-digital era. There are many new ideas out there – ideas, for example, like extended collective licensing as practised in Scandinavia, or other ideas that seek to both legitimise and monetise certain uses of works. Are these ideas the right ones to achieve our goals? I don't know. But too often we can't even try them out because of some old set of rules made for a different age – whether it is the Berne Convention, the legislation exceptions and limitations on the VAT Directive or some other current law. So new ideas which could benefit artists are killed before they can show their merit, dead on arrival. This needs to change.
I can't set out for you now what the model should be and indeed it's not the kind of model that should be developed from the centre. Rather we need to create a framework in which a model – or indeed several models – can develop organically, flexibly, in ways that support artists.
I see how some European stakeholders see with horror the arrival of Netflix, or the expansion of iTunes. We need to react, not to be paralysed by fear. Let's take chances. As Zygmunt Bauman put it, "the function of culture is not to satisfy existing needs, but to create new ones".
So that's my answer: it's not all about copyright. It is certainly important, but we need to stop obsessing about that. The life of an artist is tough: the crisis has made it tougher. Let's get back to basics, and deliver a system of recognition and reward that puts artists and creators at its heart.
Let's not wait for a financial crisis in the creative sector to happen to finally adopt the right tools to tackle it.

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