European Union unveils download charter

Telcos and film biz reps agree rules of engagement

Viviane Reding, the European Union’s information society and media commissioner, is to unveil a European charter on the downloading of movies at the Cannes Film Festival on May 23.

Move is designed to make it easier for broadband internet users to download pics legally. However, critics say that the most contentious issues surrounding copyright and film piracy have yet to be fully addressed.

Charter was drawn up by the European Commission together with a group of U.S. and EU companies from film and telecom industries, including Time Warner, Telecom Italia, Vivendi Universal and Belgacom.

The interests of movie and telecom groups tend to be at odds as the fear of piracy has led movie rights owners to restrict access to their products via the Web. However, the charter participants have nevertheless committed themselves to “good practice” in three main areas in order to increase the availability of films online.

According to the charter, commercial agreements concerning online films should enable both sides to profit, the clearance of film rights should be made easier and the technology used should be consumer-friendly.

The aim is to ensure that internet service providers and film companies cooperate to raise copyright awareness and work against the perception that online content should be automatically free.

Both sides will also be encouraged to develop copyright protection technology and fight piracy.

European Telecom Network Operators’ Assn. spokesman Thierry Dieu said: “The charter is the best way to fight against illegal downloading and to allow key players to identify the conditions that will allow legal downloading to grow as an industry.

“The new technologies available offer unlimited opportunities for the promotion of content and the creation of new distribution channels. It shows that dialogue is improving and that new business models are growing.”

Andrew Bolton, chief operating officer for On Demand Group, an interactive media and content consultancy, said that the charter would be a “helpful policy guide alongside the industry’s own initiatives.” These include a move by Time Warner on May 9 to allow consumers to buy downloads of Warner films and television shows when they become available on DVD for similar prices.

But Philippe Kern from the European Film Companies Alliance expressed doubts that film rights would be protected: “The charter does not push the telecom industries to stem the illegal activities taking place on the networks. In effect the content industry — namely film and music — are subsidizing the rollout of broadband, but neither ISPs nor telcos are taking any responsibility for this.

“The charter does not look at how European films will access the new platforms; it is also poor concerning the specific problems facing the European film industry: specifically lack of scale and fragmented distribution.

“Usually, the main proponent on the side of film is Time Warner — companies such as Zentropa or Con-stantin are too isolated among the multinationals and are not sufficiently resourced to have a real say in this process. Luckily, we had Warner confronting telcos and broadcasters but it just shows how politically weak the European film industry is.

“The majors’ business model will not work for the European independents — unless the latter pool together, they are going to be further marginalized.”

Kern added that involving the biggest film producers had resulted in a “missed opportunity” for the European Commission to encourage European filmmakers, many of whom would not get funding from traditional distributors if they agreed to make their films available online.

The competitiveness of the European movie biz is to be the subject of a meeting in Cannes on May 23 attended by the culture and audiovisual ministers of all 25 EU member states, Reding, Cannes festival prexy Gilles Jacob, film professionals and government ministers from non-EU countries.