The European Commissioner in charge of the single market, Charlie McCreevy, said Thursday he is restarting a consultation with industry with the aim of simplifying the European Union's approach to copyright levies.
The move comes 14 months after the Commission abandoned a similar effort, following pressure from France and from lobbying by the music and film industries.
Levies are slapped on a wide range of machines, ranging from photocopiers and re-writeable CDs and DVDs to mobile phones and MP3 players, in varying degrees in the 27 different countries. Their aim is to compensate rights holders when their copyright-protected material is copied.
Levies on MP3 players, for example range from nothing to €15 depending on the rules in different EU countries. McCreevy said the current system is "incoherent" but he played down hopes of a total overhaul of the status quo.
"What is the right level? There are no easy answers," he said, during a press conference as he announced a consultation that will run until 18 April. After hearing back from industry and from consumer groups the Commission will hold a conference in June "to see if there is common ground" to streamline the current system. "Last time I suspended the initiative because there was no hope then. Now it should be possible," he said.
Gadget makers welcomed the move. "As an industry, we fully support fair and proper compensation for artists, creators and other rightholders. Industry is not advocating for private copy levies to be abolished, but has repeatedly demonstrated that the current system of 'rough justice' is opaque, unfair to consumers and industry, and does not fulfill the stated purpose of fairly remunerating right holders," said Mark MacGann, director general of EICTA, the organization that represents the information and communications technology and consumer electronics industries in Europe.
According to EICTA, levies collection has more than tripled since 2001, when the EU passed a copyright law designed to suit the digital age. The law permitted copying of copyrighted works such as music for personal use, but allowed individual member states to set levels of levies to help compensate artists.
McCreevy said he had no plans to overhaul this law. "The directive allows member states to set levies. There are no plans to do away with this. We just want to get some realism." He added: "Hopefully people will come to the conference in June with an open mind."
Meanwhile, McCreevy announced a parallel initiative to extend the period of copyright protection for performing artists from 50 years to 90 years. Stars that performed other people's songs in the 1950s, as well as the session musicians of that time, are at risk of being completely cut off from airplay and recording royalties just as they reach retirement age, McCreevy said.
Extending the copyright period by 40 years won't have any impact on the price of music, McCreevy said.
Both copyright-related initiatives will require political approval from national EU governments.