Having been solicited last year by Commissioner Michel Barnier, Antonio Vitorino has just decided to don the full gear of mediator in the thorny issue of private copying and reprography levies. His announcement back in November 2011 had originally raised hope mainly based on the calibre of this shrewd politician, a former deputy Prime Minister in Portugal and holder of a particularly challenging portfolio in the Prodi Commission.

As months passed by and Spring was around the corner, rumour was spreading that another seemingly good idea had gone awry.

On actually taking charge last week, Mr Vitorino dispelled any doubt: after pondering the process he is expected to preside over, he intends to spread his wings and make a difference. His statement released on 2 April 2012 gave interesting clues as to how.

1. Mr Vitorino clearly rules out letting himself be stuck in “well-known and entrenched positions”. This fits a negotiator of his stature: his agile mind, his wealth of experience will not be wasted on sterile reiteration of how the systems have worked – or not – in the analogue era. Incidentally, a man who does not want to associate himself with a mere rehash of stale arguments has surely paid scant attention to charges levelled by GESAC and SAA at the digital industry lately. He may have contrasted these failed attempts to raise the level of noise with the industry’s wise indifference which turned these firecrackers into damp squibs, thus preserving the serenity he needs to start on the right foot.

2. Mr Vitorino wants instead to investigate “the opportunities offered by the current developments of new business models”. As if he knew already part of the answer, he goes on saying: “Such models deliver new forms of authorised access to copyright protected content. They should at the same time enable right holders to better control the use of their content and the manner in which they are remunerated for it”. These words would sound visionary enough had Mr Vitorino made a secret of his deep interest in technology. But he did not wait for his mission as mediator to meet his born inquisitiveness regarding how technology has changed the world over the centuries, a feature perhaps built in the genes of the sons of a nation once blessed with a knack for using the latest sailing and location technology to conquer continents… This mediator looks definitely well positioned to reconcile traditions and innovation, to keep from the past the lessons likely to foster more creativity and to shed those turned into an impediment, to take stock of the legacy only to move forward with stronger determination. While he has yet to declare cloud computing a game changer – and thus one more compelling reason to overhaul the rules of the copyright game – Mr Vitorino led readers of his inaugural statement to believe that he will think twice before holding the EU back in this particular area as a result of recommendations giving rigid and obsolete models of copyright management and clearance a new lease of life. This carefully crafted declaration suggests that he will use the investigating part of his remit to secure from multiple sources whatever answer he does not have yet on how digital technology can transform the levies environment radically and for the better.

3. Mr Vitorino’s statement lifts another doubt: mediator, not moderator, he does consider himself. If words have a meaning, he will not shape his action towards containing another fit of mud-slinging in a room filled with stakeholders. This vain exercise may be rightly left to minds of a lesser stature. It may even become a thing of the past outright, if Mr Vitorino were to succeed. The mediator selected by the Commission will meet stakeholders to generate light, not heat: good pick that bodes well for a successful mission.

Indeed, Mr Vitorino will “start, in the first instance, by holding these discussions on an individual basis as, in my view, this is a more effective and efficient way to achieve progress”. This is mediation at its best, giving all stakeholders a chance to be heard in a serene, open and constructive setting, only to design a set of recommendations that make sense to all. Almost by definition these recommendations will sound unheard of, since they must be innovative enough to break the stalemate. But by definition too, they should not stray too far away from a notional middle-ground as parties feeling ignored would have no part in the recommended model. Mr Vitorino thus paints the fine line he has to walk: “We must find a way to reconcile the national private copying and reprography levy systems in place today with the smooth cross-border trade in goods and services in the Single Market”. Arguably, the current economic crisis only adds a sense of urgency to unlocking Single Market-based solutions as strongly suggested by President Barroso in his 27 February letter to 12 Prime Ministers.

With Mr Vitorino’s talent and determination, with genuine cooperation on the part of stakeholders and with a bit of luck, come this fall and Mr Vitorino will be able to make practicable proposals to turn outdated levy systems into a smooth-running, affordable, flexible and efficient construct that will work in the best interest of all stakeholders. This includes European consumers who, to paraphrase Sting, “want their MTV” anytime, anywhere on the platform of their choice.

By Patrice Chazerand, Director Digital Economy and Trade Groups, DIGITALEUROPE

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