Credit Emmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse â Getty Images
Europeâs policy makers on Wednesday will announce far-reaching plans to overhaul Europeâs copyright rules, including new rules to reshape which online video and music services are available and a review of how content from publications can be distributed on major sites like Google and Yahoo.
The new rules would allow Europeans to temporarily view movies and videos they have bought on a digital service no matter where they are in the 28-member bloc. Copyright restrictions now limit access to the European country in which the content is bought.
The review of the copyright rules, which will be outlined in greater detail in early 2016, also could lead to restriction on how some of the worldâs largest tech companies include online articles in their aggregation services like Google News.
The announcements are part of Europeâs efforts to create a so-called digital single market. The goal of the overall effort, which is being completed in parts, is relatively simple: to offer Europeans unfettered access to online services across the region â a single set of rules for all digital players here â so that the European Union can better fulfill its promise of a unified market of more than 500 million people.
âWeâve already created a physical market in Europe, so why canât we do it again digitally?â Andrus Ansip, the digital chief at the European Commission, said in an interview. âWeâre working to allow people to have access to content whenever they want to pay for it.â
The new rules on digital content, which are expected to go into effect in 2017, have raised concerns that online distribution could favor large companies, like Netflix, at the expense of smaller regional players. Opponents of the proposals also say they could restrict what types of films, especially independent films, could be financed across the region.
The changes, though, must still be approved by the European Parliament and the 28 member states. And as with previous regulatory efforts to end cellphone roaming charges across Europe and to pass so-called net neutrality legislation, insiders are preparing for significant horse-trading over the details.
The review of how publishersâ content is used also hits on a touchy subject in Europe, specifically over how some American tech giants, including Google and Yahoo, get access to online material provided by the regionâs media companies. Executives from several United States tech companies have questioned whether European politicians are unfairly targeting their activities to promote European rivals, accusations Europeâs policy makers deny.
Several publishing groups have already complained that technology companies include short summaries of online articles in their news aggregation services without paying publishers for access. And in some European countries, including Spain and Germany, local politicians have passed laws to force tech companies to pay for such digital material, though these national rules have often backfired after Google either shut down its local news aggregation service or did not include local publishers in its search results.
âOver the years, Googleâs relationship with news and the news industry has often been misunderstood,â Carlo DâAsaro Biondo, Googleâs president for strategic partnerships in Europe, told a conference in London this year when announcing a $ 162 million fund to help the regionâs media industry adapt to the digital world. âWe want to play our part in the common fight to find more sustainable models for news.â
To calm publishersâ concerns, Europeâs lawmakers are expected to release proposals in the first half of next year that may eventually force tech giants and start-ups to pay media companies when they include articles in their news aggregation services, though policy makers are not expected to charge individuals who use links for their personal use. The European Commission also will review whether new rules are needed to control how news aggregation sites use publishersâ content across the 28-member bloc.
While these proposals have led to significant lobbying from both tech companies and media companies, Europeâs efforts to give people greater control over their digital content have been roundly welcomed.
The proposals to be outlined Wednesday would allow Europeans who have paid for digital content like movies, music or electronic books to access the material when they travel to a different European country. Companies, however, will be able to decide how long people can view the content while outside their home markets and may charge individuals for any additional costs for the service.
Additional changes to be proposed next year also may allow individuals to buy digital content directly from other European countries, a significant change from the current rules.
While individuals and consumer groups have applauded these changes, Europeâs content makers, film producers and digital-rights holders are worried that permitting individuals to access content from anywhere in the region may undercut their ability to make money and could eventually reduce consumer choice.
Unlike in the United States, where films are often distributed nationwide, European content makers frequently stagger movie openings across the region, and producers typically sell filmsâ licensing rights separately in each country.
Both practices, say industry executives, could be hurt if European lawmakers allow digital content to be viewed from anywhere on the Continent, as smaller content makers and video-on-demand services would find it difficult to compete with the deep pockets of global players like Netflix and Appleâs iTunes.
Christine Eloy, general manager of Europa Distribution, a Brussels-based trade body for independent film distributors, also says it may be tough to finance European movies if content makers cannot guarantee returns from selling films separately within the European Unionâs 28 countries.
âIf it becomes too risky for distributors to make money, you can say goodbye to many small films,â she said. âWeâll only be left with American blockbusters.â
Still, for Sean Schneider, a 33-year-old Londoner who often travels across Europe for work, the overhaul canât come soon enough. When he spends time in Brussels or Paris, for instance, Mr. Schneider cannot access digital content that he already has paid for, including the BBCâs video-on-demand service, called iPlayer.
âIf you pay the TV license, then you should be able to watch iPlayer,â said Mr. Schneider, in reference to the annual fee most Britons pay to watch the countryâs national broadcaster. âIf youâre trying to promote a digital single market, you should be able to access content wherever you go.â