Neelie Kroes: Books in the 21st century


Frankfurt, 13 October 2011

Ladies & gentlemen

I offer my heartfelt thanks to the Federation of European Publishers for inviting me today to speak to such a prestigious audience.

Books support European society, spreading cultural and political ideas, preserving intellectual discovery, or simply providing intelligent entertainment. But the form of the book is not the most important thing; it is the jam which counts, not the jar.

Out there in the world, there are as many different kinds of reader as there are different types of book. New technology gives us the opportunity to reach out to those readers: to offer different kinds of business model ever more tailored to the multitude of different needs, from the academic researcher to the occasional beach reader. The digital transition stands to revolutionise how we access information. And the emergence of alternative ways of reading – in particular e-books – stands to transform the publishing sector.

For you, this is a great opportunity. You have now the chance to show the creativity, dynamism and dedication that characterises the publishing sector. Embracing the transition to digital technology helps achieve the common goal of promoting and preserving Europe’s cultural strengths.

There is of course a difficult balance to be struck between safeguarding publishers’ expertise, so crucial for the value chain, and allowing the creative space for new business models. But I am confident that publishers will be able to find that balance, even as the digital world continues to develop.

I am delighted that in many areas you are already closely cooperating with us in the Commission, like on rights clearance, the innovation needs of publishers, and “online libraries”.

But what is our role overall? My general philosophy is that public authorities should be supportive while leaving space for new industry structures to emerge within a new paradigm. Let me set out a few examples.

First, we should ensure that public policy, for example tax treatment, does not distort the developing market, does not “play favourites” between different technological solutions. In the current crisis, we should not discriminate against sectors that have the potential to create growth. So it’s clear that we need to work to converge the tax treatment of digital content. Yet, currently, there is discrimination against e-books, which are subject to a higher VAT rate than printed books in the vast majority of member states. My colleague Algirdas Semeta is working on this matter. My personal view is well known: I just cannot explain why e-books and printed books are taxed differently. For the moment, in the majority of Member State responses to the Commission’s Green Paper on VAT, we have detected a really disappointing level of conservatism on this point.

Second, we must address copyright. Copyright contributes to the cultural and economic development of society. New business models are bringing copyright-protected works to larger audiences, across the EU. And we need a copyright system which helps this dynamic creative culture here in Europe.

Such a system needs to balance the rights of all. The right of authors to be recognised for their work, and to easily promote that work to a potential EU readership of 500 million. The right of publishers to experiment with, develop and potentially profit from innovative new business models for distribution. And the right of citizens to enjoy the splendour of Europe’s cultural heritage, to be educated and informed by the best that the continent has to offer.

Balancing these different rights is indeed challenging: particularly for fields like audiovisual where pan-European licensing is not standard practice. That is, fortunately, not a particular issue in the book market. I know that, as a general rule, publishers are doing a good job in cross-border licensing. I am optimistic when I see, even for audiovisual works, that very challenging questions about the relationship between copyright issues and the internal market are being tackled, as the recent “Premier League” case shows. Premier League brought actions against a number of pubs using non-UK pay-TV subscription services to show live Premier League matches. The Court of Justice held that national legislation which prohibits the import, sale or use of foreign decoder cards lawfully placed on the market in another Member State is contrary to the Treaty. This is music to my ears. But even in that case, which will certainly have significant effects for consumers as well as audiovisual content creators and distributors, it is noteworthy that the voluntary decisions of rights-holders remain at the centre of the system.

Third, in the world of ICT, standards and standardisation—ensuring all parts of the machine fit together – can drive competitiveness, promote innovation, and stimulate competition. As the e-publishing sector develops, we may also have to consider how to deliver interoperability here too. That might mean, for example, that people can buy content for any device from any supplier, transfer that content between their own devices, and keep possession of it even beyond the device’s lifespan. That could deliver openness, freedom and choice for the consumer – with benefits too for smaller market players like independent bookshops. Open standards already exist in this field, but take-up is still low. Here to read more.

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