The European Commission says European media businesses should be able to offer creative content in a single legal environment. It has launched a consultation that calls for multi-territory licences and interoperable digital rights management (DRM) systems.
Digital media rights activists, though, have warned that the plan covers much more ground than just copyright, and that consumer rights could be damaged by it.
The Commission has said that the fact that Europe has a large number of national laws on copyright and other intellectual property rights is holding its music, film and games industries back. It wants to "facilitate" multi-territory copyright licences in response to the problem, though it has not identified how this should be done.
"Europe's content sector is suffering under its regulatory fragmentation, under its lack of clear, consumer-friendly rules for accessing copyright-protected online content, and serious disagreements between stakeholders about fundamental issues such as levies and private copying," said Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for the Information Society and Media.
"We have to make a choice in Europe: Do we want to have a strong music, film and games industry? Then we should give industry legal certainty, content creators a fair remuneration and consumers broad access to a rich diversity of content online," she said.
The Commission has launched a consultation to help it form a new strategy which it hopes will eventually lead to a Europe-wide copyright licensing regime.
"The Commission also wants to facilitate copyright licences for online content covering the territory of several or all of the EU Member States," said a Commission statement. "According to Commission studies, a truly single market without borders for creative online content could strengthen considerably the competitiveness of Europe's music, film and games industry and allow retail revenues of the sector to quadruple by 2010 if clear and consumer-friendly measures are taken by industry and public authorities."
However, the plan could threaten consumer rights in a number of areas, according to digital consumer rights pressure group the Open Rights Group (ORG).
"Looking at some of the details of the European Commission consultation document it seems to be that they are proposing a lot more than just a cross Europe licensing scheme," said Becky Hogg, executive director of ORG. "There is stuff here about transparency and interoperability in digital rights management systems, there is stuff about codes of conduct between internet service providers and rights holders to encourage legal access and discourage unauthorised file sharing."
"These sorts of proposals have been causing waves in the consumer rights community since the last part of last year when France announced an experimental project where ISPs would monitor and disconnect users suspected of illicit file-sharing online," she said.
Hogg said that the consultation was likely to touch on difficult questions that the UK has already answered, such as the proposed extension of the copyright term in sound recordings beyond the current 50 year limit. This was a proposal that was rejected by Andrew Gowers in his 2006 review of intellectual property law, which the Treasury has backed.
"Gowers has already rejected this so it will be interesting to see how that goes, but we will be keen to see the evidence that Gowers collected on that being put before the European Commission," said Hogg.
Hogg said, though, that ORG had no principled objection to a pan-European copyright licence, and that it could solve a problem that certainly exists.
"It is certainly good news that the European Commission is looking it and if there can be a simpler system then both for artists and consumers that is good news," she said. "But what's clear is that this is yet another front for consumer groups to be aware of."
The consultation paper, published 3rd January, says that the Commission wants "a framework for DRM transparency concerning, amongst others, the interoperability of different DRMs, and ensuring that consumers are properly informed of any usage restrictions placed on downloaded content, as well as of the interoperability of related online services."
The consultation also addresses End User Licence Agreements (EULAs) and asks whether reducing the complexity and enhancing the legibility of EULAs would help to develop online creative content services in Europe.
The consultation closes on 29th February. Reding said that a formal Recommendation on how to achieve a single market for online content will be proposed by mid-2008.