The European Commission wants to force Google, Facebook and YouTube to pay for the right to distribute the intellectual property of writers and artists, sources in Brussels told Handelsblatt.
According to leaked draft legislation, the commission supports giving authors the exclusive right to their online content for 20 years in the European Union. In Germany, online content is currently protected for just a year. The plan is seen as a capitulation to massive pressure by the publishing and music industries.
“We want 20 years of protection,” a high-ranking member of the commission told Handelsblatt. “Creators would then have the possibility to demand compensation if they discovered their content on Google or other internet platforms years later.”
Digital experts argue that copyright is the wrong way to limit the power of Google.
Under the draft legislation obtained by Handelsblatt, the commission calls for internet companies such as Google to conclude contracts with content authors for the distribution of their material.
In Germany, the newspaper industry has long complained that Google doesn’t pay for article excerpts that are featured in search results. For years, publishers have been pressuring Germany’s Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for digital economy and society, to represent their interests. Now it appears they are getting what they want.
“We greatly welcome the European Commission’s initiative,” said Stephan Scherzer, head of Germany’s umbrella organization for magazine publishers, the VDZ, which represents 1,600 publications. “There needs to be broad rights for publishers. A fair price must be made possible with Google, Facebook and other internet companies.”
Mr. Oettinger will reportedly present his plans for reforming E.U. copyright laws on September 21. It’s one of his most important projects as Europe’s chief policymaker for the digital future.
Billions of euros are at stake. Not only will the legislation determine how creators earn money for the distribution of their products, it will also dictate the conditions under which internet users will have access to news articles, books and films.
One explosive issue is that German publishers in particular see the copyright reform as an instrument to defend themselves from the dominant power of Google, the U.S.-based search engine. The German publishers want to be recognized in the future as authors, as are film and music producers.
The European Commission started a public consultation on the subject in March. But the panel started the comment period “without presenting the goals of the reform,” the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition in Munich criticized. That raised the suspicion that the commission was giving in all too easily to the powerful publishing lobby.
Julia Reda, a German MEP for the digital activist Pirate Party, issued a scathing response to the leak on Friday. “Commissioner Oettinger has let the publishing, film and music industries hijack the reform in an attempt to protect old business models from progress – at a tragic cost to freedom of creativity and expression on the internet, startups’ right to innovate and the cause of a Europe without digital borders,” she wrote.
This puts “corporate interests above those of creators, entrepreneurs and users” and “displays utter disregard for the input provided over the last years by the public, researchers, those defending digital rights, the European Parliament, his predecessor and countless others.”
Just how aware Europe’s officials are in treading on such precarious ground can be seen in a commission services document, which weekly business news magazine WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt, has obtained.
The copyright matter demands “careful political handling,” the document says. “Groups of civil society, online platforms and all who traditionally reject the widening of copyrighted material could stress that there will potentially be less freely-available content online.”
In the paper, the commission, which is the E.U. executive branch, proposes a European ancillary copyright for publishers in the online segment – alongside the option that member states be able to fashion their own rules so that private copying fees, which manufacturers of printers pay, will again be paid in the future to publishers. The European Court of Justice had ruled that only authors should benefit from this levy.
The European Commission officials also point out in the document that the 2013 German ancillary copyright for press publishers had “mixed results.”
The German government at the time wanted to strengthen the publishers’ position vis-à-vis Google. The publishers wanted a defense against Google’s practice of listing journalists’ work in its Google News platform without paying for it.
After the ancillary copyright was introduced, Google gave the publishers the option of not being listed in Google News anymore. Since the number of visits to the publishers’ websites collapsed because of it, the publishers finally agreed to a free-of-cost license for Google. Courts, however, have yet to decide whether or not that’s legal. The German legal dispute is likely to be appealed to the highest authority.
Spain took a different route. There, rules were introduced that forced Google to pay when Google News used lines of news. Google thereupon closed down that service in Spain. The U.S. internet giant is now threatening to close down its service in all of Europe if it’s no longer able to trace the news for free. Some of the publishers think it’s a bluff. But if it happens, the users would be the losers in the end.
Digital experts such as Agustin Reyes of the European Consumer Organization argue that copyright is the wrong way to limit the power of Google, which already has a 94 percent market share in Germany.
“That’s what the antitrust law is there for,” Mr. Reyes said.
Google doesn’t generate any advertising income with Google News, but the users pay through the use of their personal data. It’s this subject that is occupying the German and French antitrust authorities, but so far neither has found an answer to the challenge of the digital age. So the power struggle continues.
Meanwhile, some European publishers also hope to participate in Google’s advertising earnings through an E.U. law – and are banking on digital commissioner Mr. Oettinger.
This article originally appeared in business weekly WirtschaftsWoche. Handelsblatt’s Brussels correspondent Ruth Berschens contributed to this report. To contact the authors: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org