Pressure grows ahead of key parliamentary vote on major shake up of EU-wide copyright laws

MEPs are coming under “huge pressure” to throw their weight behind a planned major reform of the copyright rules.

Under the complex changes, press publishers would be given exclusive right of reproduction and digital use of their press publications.

German publishing giant Axel Springer, the largest digital publishing house in Europe, with several well-known brands, such as Bild, Die Welt and also joint owner of Politico, is reportedly among those championing the new EU-wide legislation.

But the German EPP party has been accused of “openly lobbying” on behalf of Axel Springer by contacting members of the legal affairs committee and urging them to back the proposals in a vote by the committee on 20 and 21 June.

It is claimed that some committee members have been told of “possible repercussions” if they fail to support the proposal.

They have allegedly been told that to “stay away” from the meeting if they intend to reject the new law, with substitute members, who are more sympathetic to the plans, lined up to vote instead.

British MEP Dan Dalton, a member of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee (LIBE), said: “I am not surprised by this, given how controversial this issue is, even within the EPP. But it doesn’t reflect well on the EPP that they want to silence their own members on an issue as controversial as this.” Dalton, a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and who opposes the so-called “neighbouring right” in the directive, added, “By resorting to these methods it only further demonstrates that there are huge concerns throughout the European parliament, including within the EPP with the neighbouring right.

“I’m sure that this will be made clear when the Plenary votes on this issue.”

The proposal is the most controversial part of the EU copyright reform package, which has as its objective to modernise EU copyright rules.

Under Article 11 of the proposal, press publishers are given the exclusive right of reproduction and making available to the public for the digital use of their press publications. This controversial new right has been referred to variously as an ‘ancillary copyright’, a ‘link tax’ or a ‘Google tax’.

In practice it would mean that news aggregators – such as Google news – wishing to link to publishers’ content or to use snippets from journalistic online content would first have to conclude licences with press publishers. This new right would last for 20 years after publication.The right would facilitate online licensing of press publications and give press publishers an enforcement mechanism to obtain compensation in the case of unlawful online publication.

But the proposed right has been met with fierce criticism with various objections raised, including from the European Copyright Society.

It raises several points of criticism, pointing out the failure by the European Commission to conduct an economic assessment and impact study on the proposal.

Another criticism is that the proposed right would distort competition by favouring large online news providers with deep pockets, to the detriment of small European start-ups, which are financially unable to conclude enough licenses for entrance into the market.

An expert study commissioned by the European Parliament argues against the adoption of the right and proposes instead its replacement ‘with a presumption that press publishers are entitled to copyright/use rights in the contents of their publications’.

The Parliament’s own internal research service (DG IPOL) said the measure was not needed and raised objections relating to freedom of expression while the Commission’s Joint Research Centre also found it was not needed. Journalists’ representatives, including the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (the group behind the Panama Papers) warn the provision will limit the ability of independent media organizations to provide accurate and fair reporting.

When a neighbouring right was introduced in Spain publications saw a drop of between 8-15% in their audiences.

The concept is backed Parliament’s rapporteur on the dossier, Axel Voss, a senior German MEP and member of the German CDU party.

In her draft report, former EPP MEP Comodini Cachia opted for a compromise solution but this was rejected when she returned to domestic politics and Voss took over her role on the file.

German publishers, including Springer, are at the forefront of efforts to have the provision adopted and Cachia, now an MP in her native Malta, said, “I cannot imagine the German publishers making life easy.”

Dalton adds, “I have quite a few concerns with the  neighbouring right.It threatens to stop people sharing links on social media platforms, even though these links only send people to the news publishers websites where the publishers can monetise their visit in any way they want. Social media in this regard is therefore actually beneficial for the publishers as it drives traffic to their websites. 

“This proposal could effectively copyright the news, and make it much harder for people to access real news. Fake news sites however would be unaffected and could end up being the only news that people will see on social media platforms.”

Dalton added, “Small companies such as news aggregators and small publishers trying to compete with the giants like Google would be squeezed out of the market. This is what happened when a similar law was passed in Spain. Many small Spanish businesses went bust as a result.”

He said, “The law has also failed in Germany with similar results. So, in conclusion, it’s bad for consumers, bad for quality news and bad for publishers. It has been tried and failed in Spain and Germany and should be rejected.”

A member of the JURI committee, who said he did not wish to be named, said, “I know that several members of our committee have come under huge pressure to vote in favour of this particular proposal. The German CDU, via its EPP affiliate, has been reportedly pressuring them to vote  what you might call the ‘right’ way.As part of their efforts to convince them to do this there have been reports of threats of members not being allocated reports and parliamentary positions if, basically, they don’t do as they are told. The alleged involvement of the German publishers gives cause for some concern.”

He added, “I understand how things work in this parliament and lobbying is part and parcel of the EU decision making process but when it comes to 'threats and warnings' that is crossing a line.”

In an open letter to MEPs and the council a 20-strong group of independent legal, economic and social scientists, described the “neighbouring right” provision as “fundamentally flawed”, adding that it does “not serve the public interest.”

The letter, seen by this website, states, “Article 11 seeks to create an additional exclusive right for press publishers, even though press publishers already acquire exclusive rights from authors via contract. The additional right will deter communication of news, obstruct online licensing, and will negatively affect authors. Independent empirical evidence has been ignored, consultations have been summarised in a misleading manner, and legitimate criticism has been labelled as anti-copyright.”

No one from Axel Springer was immediately available for comment.

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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