Sunday, 17 December 2017

France hijacks Culture Council agenda with Copyright

France invented the Minitel. Not the Internet. But then again, France considers it holds a patent on culture, or so one could think when looking at how some of the country’s representatives consider it is their mission to defend their notion of culture at all cost.

The remark would be quaint if it was not fundamentally affecting discussions that will shape not only the future of copyright in the European Union (and by extension, in the world), but more generally the upholding of the Ecommerce Directive and the future of the Internet as it is used by citizens and businesses alike.

As previously reported, France has been pushing a very specific agenda in the discussions on the adoption of a Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market as regards the future of online platforms: regardless of what the Ecommerce Directive states, platforms will be held liable for the content posted by their users and will hence need to take measures to avoid such liability by removing content. This view of life translated into Article 13 of the proposed Directive, which went so far in its original version by the European Commission as clearly stating that content recognition technologies could be used to avoid such liability. This spectrum of automated censorship filters has generated enormous amounts of criticism by both academics, media freedom and fundamental rights organisations and industry, up to the point that various alternative versions stopped mentioning it explicitly. But let us be frank here: not talking about the elephant in the room does not make the elephant disappear!

The French ‘coup’ on the copyright file and on the Ecommerce Directive is not limited to its alternative and damaging proposal for Article 13. It is also illustrated by the very candid intervention of Professor Sirinelli at the Commission des Affaires Culturelles of the Assemblée Nationale: see his description of the intense collaboration between the French and the Copyright Unit of the European Commission during the drafting process and his admission that the Commission went further than the French dared here (after 1:19:24).

Even more blatant, is the intention of the French Minister of Culture (former head of major French publishing house Actes Sud, a position which she took over from her father and handed over to her husband when appointed Minister) to drum up support from other Member Statess at the 21 November Council meeting of Ministers of Culture [see agenda point 16(f)] on how to ‘Remake Europe through culture’ [French version – English translation] , where she will aim to convince her colleagues to sign up to a declaration that basically explains how creators will be saved from the big bad Internet, mixing the fight against piracy with the removal of hate speech and the protection of minors, and basically bringing in the copyright file in a Council that is not competent to handle it, as it falls under the responsibility of the Competitiveness (COMPET) Council.

The document calls for a “collective exchange of views on the policy lines the European Union wishes to lay down, for example as part of the ongoing reform of copyright legislation, with the aim of creating a suitable environment in which Europe’s cultural industries can flourish in the digital age and ensuring that creators receive fair remuneration for each use of their works” (see section 2). The document also hints at France’s hopes to get the German Minister of Culture in its web once she/he is appointed, a point also made by the French Culture Minister in her recent statements at the French National Assembly, where she explains how she’s waiting for a new German Minister of Culture to get Germany’s backing for Article 13.

But whilst the French excel at grand declarations about saving creation and creators, nothing on the table achieves such a result. Rightholders and collecting societies are the ones that are being pushed forward to the detriment of online platforms, but creators are not part of this equation. Moreover, throwing copyright on the Culture Council agenda is simply stepping on the turf of the COMPET Council Ministers, including the Ministers competent for the Ecommerce Directive, which after all is currently the main potential victim of this frontal attack.

Pretending to promote culture by chilling free expression on the Internet, which has itself become a major source of creation of culture, is not the way to go. And no, the Minitel will not come back by destroying the Internet. One can only hope that this French coup gets deflected and that common sense slips back into the discussions on this crucial matter.

Caroline is coordinator of the Copyright 4 Creativity (C4C) coalition. She is also the founder and Managing Director of N-square Consulting (N²), a Brussels-based public affairs firm. She is the author of ‘iLobby.eu: Survival Guide to EU Lobbying, Including the Use of Social Media’.