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European Parliament rejects EC plans for content portability

European parliamentUPDATED: MEPs have endorsed the watered-down version of rules on ‘content portability’ across frontiers within the EU that was proposed by the European Parliament’s own legal affairs committee last month, despite the opposition of the European Commission.

MEPs today endorsed the mandate for negotiations drawn up by the Legal Affairs Committee in November, with 344 votes in favour, 265 against, and 36 abstentions. Parliament will now start talks with the Council on the new rules as soon as EU governments have agreed their own negotiating position.

EC digital agenda commissioner Andrus Ansip had earlier described the compromise on content portability agreed by the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee last month “a total failure” and called again for a more comprehensive move towards making content available across national frontiers within the EU ahead of the crucial vote today.

In an interview with French financial daily Les Echos, Ansip said that streaming service providers with rights to programmes in the EU should be able to distribute the service in any country within the Union.

In November, the European parliament’s legal affairs committee voted to water down European Commission proposals that would have enabled broadcasters to show a wide range of content across borders within the EU. Instead, the parliament voted to limit the application of the ‘country of origin’ principle that would enable this to news and current affairs programming only.

European Commission vice-president, Andrus Ansip

European Commission vice-president, Andrus Ansip

Ansip told Les Echos that this would be “a step backwards”. He said the Commission had written to the Parliament to convince them not to endorse the “enormous mistake” promulgated by the legal affairs committee.

Ansip said that endorsement of the legal committee’s position would not be “the end of the story”. He said the Commssion would take its case for a wider opening up of the content market to the next round of informal negotiations with the parliament known as the ‘trilogues’.

Ansip told Les Echos that all non-premium content should be portable if distributors have the relevant rights to distribute it via OTT services outside their home countries. He said the current situation where rights to non-premium content had to be negotiated for 27 different countries was “too complicated”.

Content rights-holders and commercial broadcasters had strongly opposed the EC’s changes, arguing that a broader revision of the rules would reduce the value of exclusive rights and prevent producers from selling distribution rights on a country-by-country basis.

However, Ansip rejected these objections, arguing that the proposed reforms did not cover premium content. He said the EC was not planning to force broadcasters to make content available internationally if they wished to sell it to another distributor in another country.

Sajjad Karim

Sajjad Karim

Ansip said that European citizens resident in other countries than their own should have the right to view content from their home country. He said the alternative was often to resort to pirate services and added that global internet players like Netflix knew how to make their own content as widely available as possible.

Among those to welcome the Parliament’s rejection of moves to expand content portability beyond news and current affairs were UK Conservative MEPs.

“This report underwent detailed scrutiny by the Committee and it is quite right that our views have been upheld,” said Conservative legal affairs spokesman Sajjad Karim.

Karim said that to widen portability rules “to expensive drama and entertainment productions, as a number of MEPs want to do, could have meant some of the most popular programmes no longer got made”.

“Companies often rely on sales to other EU countries to finance their shows, while investors may only become involved in return for exclusive broadcast rights in their own country,” he said.

“Forcing broadcasters to make these programmes freely available across the EU would completely undermine that business model.”

The Association of Commercial Television in Europe (ACT), representing commercial broadcasters, which has argued that a wider application of content portability could risk investment and result in less content being produced, also welcomed the decision.

“The European Parliament vote offers EU citizens a future full of quality TV.  It is a vote in support of the amount, quality and diversity of TV and movies available to viewers,” said Agnieszka Horak, ACT’s director of policy and legal affairs.

“On behalf of ACT, I would like to thank all the Members of the European Parliament who voted for this step towards better legislation.”

Horak also called on COREPER – the committee of permanent representatives of member states and one of the participants in the co-decision-making process that creates European legislation – to support the Parliament’s decision.

“We urge the Member States in COREPER to follow the direction of travel set by the Parliament, and limit the scope of the country-of-origin exception so that viewers can continue to be entertained and informed by a wide range of high quality TV programming,” she said.

Nicola Frank

Nicola Frank

The EBU, representing public broadcasters, by contrast, expressed its disappointment with the move and said it would continue to work for reform of the copyright system to provide a workable framework to offer content across borders.

“The SatCab Regulation was originally devised to enhance the circulation of content in Europe and enable both consumers and Europe’s audiovisual sector to reap the benefits of the Digital Single Market. Today’s vote goes against these intentions, maintaining a fragmented European audiovisual market and turning down enhanced access to European culture for citizens,” said EBU head of European affairs Nicola Frank.

“We salute the European Commission for taking a brave step to submit this proposal and respond to the expectations of citizens and consumers. The procedure is not over and we hope that upcoming milestones in the adoption of this Regulation will lead to a better outcome.”