Michel Barnier, the incoming commissioner for the internal market, will be greeted with urgent calls for legislation to reduce copyright levies that are charged on electronic goods, after the collapse last week of talks aimed at a private-sector agreement.
The talks between technology companies, which make electronic goods such as MP3 players and printers, and collecting societies, which represent authors, performers and other rights-holders, collapsed because Digital Europe, an association representing the European technology industry, pulled out. It said that 18 months of discussion had “failed to deliver any concrete results or provide a way forward”.
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“A political and legislative intervention is required at the European level, ” said Bridget Cosgrave, Digital Europe’s director-general. “There are fundamental aspects of the private copy levy system which cannot simply be resolved in a stakeholder forum,” she said.
Digital Europe’s decision was supported by BEUC, the European consumers’ association, another major participant in the talks. “It is sad that collecting societies, acting entirely in their own interests, have not seen fit to make any compromises on the issue of private copyright levies,” said Monique Goyens, BEUC’s director-general. BEUC is also calling for Barnier to legislate.
The European association of collecting societies, Gesac, said it “strongly” regretted Digital Europe’s decision, and that “agreement on a number of issues was so close”. It said it remained ready to resume talks.
The levies are imposed by collecting societies on electronic goods that can be used to copy protected works. The levies reimburse rights-holders for copies that people make for their private use.
Private copying levies are collected in almost all member states, with the exception of the UK, Cyprus, Ireland, Luxembourg and Malta.
Digital Europe’s decision is a headache for the European Commission, which viewed the talks as a painless way to deal with a divisive and controversial problem.
Distorting the market
The talks were launched by the Commission in September 2008 following opposition from the French government to an attempt by Charlie McCreevy, the European commissioner for the internal market, to issue a recommendation on how the levies should be calculated. McCreevy decided to act because he was concerned that national variations in the size of levies were distorting the single market.
McCreevy had hoped to publish his recommendation in December 2006, but was forced to back down by Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Dominique de Villepin, then France’s prime minister, personally lobbied Barroso to prevent its publication. Other opponents of the recommendation included film director Pedro Almodóvar.
According to figures from Digital Europe, the variation in levies remains considerable. The association said that the levies imposed in 2009 on a 120-160 gigabyte MP3 player varied from €25 in France and €15 in Austria to €3.15 in Spain.
The association also said that the levies that manufacturers are asked to pay are increasing steadily. The total amount of levies collected from its members rose from £500 million in 2001 to more than £2 billion in 2009.