Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for the digital agenda, has expressed her frustration at delays within the European Commission in overhauling the EU's rules on copyright licensing.
In an interview with European Voice, Kroes said that she “cannot explain” why the Commission has not yet come forward with proposals to make it easier for music to be licensed in more than one EU country.
Her remarks will be seen as a thinly veiled criticism of the team headed by Michel Barnier, the European commissioner for the internal market, which is in charge of the policy. Kroes said that in meetings of the college of commissioners she frequently spoke in favour of a change, but described trying to push the issue forward as a “negative experience”.
“I can't understand that it takes so much time and I am absolutely frustrated,” she said.
Music licensing is organised by collecting societies in each country. While some have indicated that they are ready to adapt to the internet age and have recruited chief executives with ICT backgrounds, others are more resistant to change. Critics also claim that they are not transparent and favour larger artists over smaller ones.
“It is about the organisation, the management of collecting societies that are old-fashioned, that are not in line with what we, as a whole, in the digital single market, could offer to people,” said Kroes. “You have to change that and it was promised that it was on the table two years ago.”
Kroes warned that there was a risk of abuse of the system: the danger was that “you are not giving the money that you are collecting to the artists”.
Kroes said she was in favour of a mixed approach, by which licences could be acquired on a national or EU-wide basis.
Officials working for Barnier have indicated that proposals would be published in June. They say that the length of time taken to formulate a proposal reflects a determination to achieve the widest possible support during the legislative process.
The plan is to make it easier for collecting societies to arrange pan-EU licensing and include measures to ensure that societies are transparent in their distribution of revenues. “The directive of 2001 badly needs a review and I can't explain why it takes so long,” Kroes said. “We are now half-way through this Commission and we know how long it takes to come to a legal decision.”
Kroes contrasted her dealings on this issue with her work in partnership with John Dalli, the European commissioner for health and consumer policy, on e-health proposals, and with Siim Kallas, the commissioner for transport, and Günther Oettinger, the commissioner for energy. “John [Dalli] and I are, to the outside world, buddies,” Kroes said. “John is the portfolio holder for health, no doubt about that, but I am instrumental and we are both aware that, with the problems and challenges of ageing, e-health is absolutely fascinating.”
Kroes's problem is that many of the ICT issues she champions overlap with the work of other commissioners, some of whom may not fully support her more liberal approach. She is keen to stick up for the “openness” of the internet – a concept generally defined as the desire to break down copyright obstacles, to guard against governments or businesses blocking websites, and to prevent internet providers being able to force people to use some websites rather than others.
But, despite this fundamentally liberal approach, her argument is more nuanced than some of her critics give her credit for. She said that openness should not come at the expense of privacy or safety or by curtailing internet firms' innovative offers. “There is a lot of misunderstanding about open internet,” she said. “You need rules of the game.”
This will be particularly true as the level of internet use increases. Some telecoms companies have already signalled that they want to charge people different amounts depending on what they use the internet for.
Consumers could be charged more for downloading films or chatting on voice communication services such as Skype, for example. Telecoms companies argue that this would enable them to control internet traffic more easily, to ensure networks run smoothly.
Kroes will shortly launch a consultation on ‘net neutrality', but she hinted that she would not favour banning telecoms companies from offering packages that limit use, because this would promote competition.
“The consumer is king,” she said. “The new services are asking for more capacity, but as long as there is more demand than supply, I am in favour of competition,” she said.
The Dutch commissioner sees no difference in her net- neutrality philosophy and her approach to all of her work: from lowering the cost of using a mobile phone abroad to making sure that there is enough radio spectrum to cope with new mobile services.
“Everything is connected to everything else,” she said. “Roaming, competition, spectrum; the fact you can just jump to another [phone company] and do that in a very short period and take your number with you.
“Do not underestimate the consumer. They are getting more into the position where they do not accept what was common in the past. Things take time.”