Bloomberg View Editorial Board
A “Digital Single Market,” like a single currency, is one of those grand European ideas that sounds better than it works. Take, for example, the European Commission’s clumsy attempt to use copyright law as a cudgel against U.S. interlopers such as Google and Facebook.
One provision of a new bill proposed by the European Commission accords publishers the right to a license fee whenever a news aggregator such as Google News uses even a snippet of the publisher’s content. Currently aggregators pay no such fee.
Who would that license fee benefit? Not readers: It would only make the publishers’ work harder to find. Not the aggregators, whose value proposition depends on offering its customers the widest possible array of information.
Publishers seem to think they will be the main beneficiaries – they lobbied heavily for the right to charge a fee – but it’s not at all clear they will be. When German publishers tried to force aggregators to pay license fees in 2014, applying legislation that came into effect the year before, Google News refused and stopped carrying snippets of German articles. Publishing giant Axel-Springer found that traffic from Google News plummeted by 80 percent during the two-week cut-off. Publishers relented and waived the fee. Spain tried a similar approach in 2015, with predictable results.
News aggregators are disrupters of course, but they are also saviors: They can grow (and globalize) a small local audience. Certainly publishers have to find new ways to adapt and make a profit. Seeking protection under the guise of copyright law is not the way to do it.
The commission’s copyright proposal is not completely without virtues. It would allow for cultural heritage institutions to distribute works no longer available to the public, for example, and would clarify legal uncertainty around the use of copyrighted materials by teachers and researchers. But making these exceptions is very different from creating new rights. In general, the commission needs to take a lighter touch. It’s now up to the European Parliament and member governments, as they review the proposal, to make sure it does.
© 2016, Bloomberg View