Bitter row over copyright law intensifies ahead of key parliamentary vote

MEPs are allegedly coming under pressure ahead of a major reform of the EU wide 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.

However, the company and the German publishers have strenuously denied knowledge of members being put under any undue pressure on the issue by the EPP.

Rather, it is claimed that what lobbying has taken place has been by the "big internet players" with one MEP saying, "Much pressure is being put on MEPs but this is coming from big internet players against the neighbouring rights for the press publishers."

Some members of the legal affairs committee have reportedly been lobbied and urged to back the proposals in a vote by the committee on 20 and 21 June.

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. "

Dalton, who is not a member of the legal affairs committee, added, "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, who is 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 support the provision and Cachia, now an MP in her native Malta, was reported as saying, “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.”

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.”

However, when asked if the company knew anything about MEPs coming under pressure to vote a certain way, Axel Voss was adamant, saying, “No, I have not heard of such a pressure being applied.”

Polish deputy Tadeusz Zwiefka, a deputy leader of the EPP group who also sits on the committee on Legal Affairs, said he was “very much surprised” by the rumours, adding, “I have heard nothing about such a practice and definitely nobody has approached me about this. Besides, there is rather a clear EPP approach to this issue in the EPP paper on copyright reform, which was established months ago.

“I would rather say that there is a great lobby and much pressure being put on MEPs but this is coming from big internet players against the neighbouring rights for the press publishers. I am being spammed on this for months.”

A spokesman for the German Press Publishers Association also told this website they were unaware of any such pressure being applied.

“We got the impression that there is a very lively and open discussion in the Committee.We support the draft of the European Commission and have welcomed the recent decision in the Council,” added the spokesman.

The publishers go on to state, “To remain competitive and independently financed, Europe’s publishers need to be able to compete on all platforms.

“Whilst publishers have successfully transitioned from analogue to digital, they will only reach their potential with an appropriate and updated legal framework that addresses the complexities of online copyright and licensing and gives publishers the legal resource to protect their investment in the original, professional content that underpins the freedom of the press and democracy.”

They add, "What publishers need is a “publishers’ right” granting publishers the legal protection and clarity already afforded to broadcasters and film and music producers."

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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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