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29 January 2015updated 27 Sep 2015 5:30am

The Pirate Party’s lone MEP might just fix copyright across the EU

The first draft of a copyright reform report, from the digital rights party's last MEP, could give the Pirates a significant legacy.

By Ian Steadman

Last week saw the publication of a draft report on copyright reform in the EU, authored by German Pirate Party member Julia Reda. For those familiar with who the Pirates are and what they stand for, the fact that a Pirate MEP was given the job of copyright reform rapporteur might seem surprising – almost as surprising as the proposals themselves, which address many of the trickiest intellectual property issues within Europe with sense and moderation.

Here’s the current state of copyright in the EU: across the 28 different member states, there are 28 different copyright regimes. Inconsistencies between them open up the possibility of individuals or companies being fined in one EU member state for actions allowed in another – like, say, remixing someone else’s song for a parody cover – for not realising that the common market isn’t always so common. There are some treaties and conventions which provide a baseline everyone has to work with (most notably, the 2001 EU directive on copyright, the most recent attempt to reconcile these differences), but the general state of affairs is that we have a mish-mash of legislation, largely drawn up without the input of everyone involved in creating intellectual works and insufficient for representing the interests of all fairly.

The inconsistencies and irrationalities of intellectual property regimes around the world is one of the core concerns of the international Pirate Party movement. The first manifestation, the Swedish Pirate Party, was founded in December 2005 by IT entrepreneur and activist Rick Falkvinge, and its early members were galvanised by (among other things) the first major raid on the Pirate Bay filesharing site in May 2006. In Sweden, Germany and Iceland – the three nations where the Pirates have managed to secure their greatest electoral successes, taking regional and national parliamentary seats – the parties have had a limited, but focused and determined, approach to their key issues: digital rights, privacy, surveillance, civil rights, patent reform, radical direct democracy and copyright reform.

The Pirate ethos on copyright is anathema to many in traditional media industries – they see many of the international copyright regimes enacted over the last several decades as designed primarily to protect the revenues of middlemen like publishers and studios, to the detriment of creativity, education and freedom from censorship for the average citizen. For Pirates, intellectual property law, and something as simple as the right to rip a CD and listen to it on a different device to the one the music label intended, is more than about profits – it’s about the fundamental rights individuals should expect when it comes to expressing, sharing and shaping their own culture. At a rally in the summer of 2006, Falkvinge gave his famous “Nothing new under the Sun” speech, which largely lays out the Pirates’ worldview:

We no longer simply download culture and knowledge. We upload at the same time too, to others. We share files. Knowledge and culture have, amazingly, lost its central point of control.

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This is the central point of my whole address, so I’m going to go into it in deeper detail: Downloading is the old mass medium model where this is a central control point, a control point with a responsible publisher liable, with the risk of their press subsidy being revoked and so on and so forth, where everyone can download knowledge and culture from the central point of control, that can give and take away rights as they see fit.

Culture and knowledge monopoly. Control.

In the 2009 European elections, propelled by widespread discontent after the 2007-08 financial crash, the Pirates secured 7.13 per cent of the Swedish vote and earned two seats in the EU Parliament. They appeared poised to become the radical party of choice for much of northern Europe, particularly among the young – and, while the Swedish branch’s success has faded and Falkvinge lost his seat as the 2014 elections came around, the German branch still had a solid enough base to get its first MEP to Brussels. Julia Reda, 28, is now the only sitting Pirate MEP, and the only member of the wider cross-EU European Pirate Party. She in turn sits as vice-president of the Greens/European Free Alliance, which takes in the Green parties of Europe alongside other environmentalist, regionalist or radical parties from across the EU. When she arrived in Brussels, she made it clear that copyright reform was her overwhelming priority.

Her report – which, in true Pirate fashion, she has uploaded to the collaborative research site Discuto to encourage improvements or alternative amendments – is surprising, then, because it isn’t a radical document, but rather a very moderate one. “In the past, the debate about copyright has really been kind of like trench warfare, you know,” she told me when I spoke to her this week. “The reason the Pirate Party calls itself the Pirate Party is because people were simply making use of their right to makes private copies and were asking not to be surveilled, and draconian measures were used against individuals because of suspected copyright infringement. These people were called pirates, and they were basically put on the same level as violent criminals. I think bringing the tone of the debate down to a rational level, and really looking at the facts and the studies, and coming to an agreement – that is really in the interests of all the groups that are involved. Not just preserving the business models of the past.”

The report includes proposals for harmonising exceptions across the EU, so content produced in one member state can’t be considered infringement in another. It also proposes making life-plus-50 years (the limit set out in the Berne Convention) the consistent standard term for copyright protection. The UK limit is currently life-plus-70 years, and, notoriously, large media companies tend to lobby fiercely for even further extensions so as to prevent lucrative fictional characters like Mickey Mouse falling into the public domain – and while pushing back only to the limit set by Berne is no doubt less ambitious than many Pirates would prefer, Reda is clear that any reform on this point would be shot down if at attempted anything more radical than that.

Another proposal would ensure individuals have the same rights to lend and resell second-hand digital products just as they do for physical media like books or CDs, and give significant exemptions from copyright infringement for educational purposes. “I think what’s really important is that this is not just about what individual internet users want to do, but it’s really all across the board – educational institutions, libraries, universities are really calling for this reform, because they’re saying that they simply cannot fulfill their functions any more in the digital age,” said Reda. “Things that were absolutely understood in the analogue age – like, for example, that you can lend a book – are suddenly a problem in the digital world, and we really need to make sure that these educational institutions can really make use of the internet, and are not hindered by copyright.”

Unlike much copyright reform, which focuses on specific new technologies as and when they emerge – it was only last year, for example, that British copyright law changed to allow people to rip music from CDs to their computers, even though most consumers now cut out that step and download tracks directly – Reda’s report is clever in that it accepts that there are scenarios that we can’t imagine yet, and which it’s futile to legislate for in advance. Instead, it’s about making sure that new ways to use data aren’t hampered by restrictive copyright as long as it’s intuitively obvious that permissions granted in one format should travel over to another.

Reda said: “When we first started getting confronted with the issues that the internet and copyright bring up, everybody was in a bit of a panic. I feel like, in the 2001 directive on copyright that I’m now evaluating, we have a lot of regulations that don’t really make sense, and that you would not have made this way if you had thought about it long and carefully. For example, the provision that libraries can show ebooks, but only when you physically go to the library. This is the kind of rule where somebody is trying to preserve the way things used to work, and not taking advantage of the new possibilities that the internet shows.”

“I think we really need to kind of stop looking at the internet as the enemy of the creative industries, and rather think ‘OK, how can creators make money without surveilling everybody and breaking core functions of the internet?’.”

The reaction to Reda’s proposals has varied wildly, as befits a topic with so many contrasting opinions and stakeholders. She summed up many of the contradictions she saw on her blog – depending on who you ask, the report is either extreme or mild, serious or inconsequential, anti-author or pro-, radically anti-copyright or radically pro-, a threat to the creative industries of Europe or possibly a valuable ally. And, of course, this is a draft report. There’s a lot more work, and a lot more negotiating, to be done. 

“That’s really the big challenge,” she said. “What I’ve seen with the lobby meetings, and the lobby requests that I’ve received, is that the collecting societies in particular are usually the only voice of the authors that is really heard in Brussels. But when you look at the results of the consultations that the European Commission did last year, where a lot of authors replied individually, you can see that there is a big difference in the interests of authors and collecting societies, and this is not a battle between users on one hand and authors on the other hand.”

But despite being the only Pirate MEP, and sitting as part of one of the smaller groups in the parliament, she feels that reaction to her report has been positive – and that there’s a good chance of getting them approved. She doesn’t, however, want to make this appear like it could be the most significant impact the Pirates have on international politics since forming nearly a decade ago.”There are also cultural changes that the Pirates have already brought about that I wouldn’t want to diminish,” she said, “when it comes to allowing public participation in the way parties function, and introducing the concept of liquid democracy that has now been picked up by other new political parties – I think [they] are also very important cultural things, so wouldn’t boil it down to one particular issue even though it’s the most important political issue for us.”

I think we’ve seen really encouraging signs from the Commission. They’ve very clearly said that the system is too complex and that we need to make sure that users can enjoy the same freedoms and the same access to work across the EU. If we can achieve that, I think we’ve come a long way in the way of the solution.”