Getting rid of EU territorial restrictions is good for minority languages and creators


German Pirate MEP Julia Reda's copyright report calls for an end to geoblocking within the EU market, which is inarguably required to create a single digital market. If a European can buy something in one EU member state, she should be able to buy it in the other member-states, too.

The objection that this will be bad for minority language audiovisual materials is a non-sequitur. For the most part, geographic restrictions are a proxy for language restrictions. The right to sell a film's Italian-language rights in Germany is effectively worthless. Changes to territorial restrictions that mean that the Italian distributor can sell the Italian edition everywhere in the EU will not change this fact.

Who benefits from territorial restrictions? Not material in minority languages, and not material produced by independent producers.

Some EU nations share languages -- Austria and Germany; the Netherlands and parts of Belgium, etc. Other EU territories -- such as the Nordic countries share a large degree of English-language proficiency. The division of these territories on national (rather than linguistic) lines generates some additional income -- but by definition, this additional profit only accrues to products that are in widely-spoken languages.

Then there are the works whose appeal is largely visual or auditory, not linguistic -- sporting events and some music. Territorial divisions allow those very popular and profitable works to eke out a few more points of profit by playing territorial distributors off against one another.

In other words, geoblocking isn't an existential requirement -- it's a profit-maximisation strategy used by the most popular works in the most widely-spoken languages.

Geoblocking works at the expense of independent material, material in minority languages, and the essential character of a common market.

Works in minority languages are vanishingly unlikely to find distributorship outside of the territories where that language is spoken. No one outside of Spain is buying the Catalan-language distribution rights to copyrighted works. But there are Catalan speakers all over the EU -- especially since austerity has sent so many Spanish citizens abroad looking for economic opportunity. The Catalan diaspora would like to buy Catalan works from Amazon.es, from the Google Play store, and from other Internet-accessible services. However, all of these services routinely block access to Catalan material outside of Spain, because the distributors have marked them for distribution within the territory they control -- or because in the absence of evidence to the contrary and in the face of stiff penalties for distribution outside of licensed territories, the digital platforms simply resolve all territorial ambiguity by refusing to sell to anyone they aren't dead certain they have the rights to sell to.

No creator relishes the prospect of a customer being refused at the cash-register. The thought that someone out there wants to buy my UK English-language books in Sweden or Italy and is being rebuffed by Google or Apple because they're not sure who holds those rights is dreadful to me. My readers want to give me money, I want their money to feed my family and pay my rent, but the quagmire of territorial restrictions established to maximise the profits of the biggest players in the entertainment industry means that it's not worth anyone's while to collect their money and give it to me.

The only proven-effective means of reducing piracy is to offer attractive legitimate propositions. Viewers and readers who can't access the material they want over legitimate channels are more likely to turn to illegitimate channels. Once they start using those channels, they tend to keep using them. Geoblocking creates piracy by denying Europeans legitimate channels to pay for the material their friends in other member-states are talking about online.

The economics of geoblocking dictate that works in majority languages are distributed abroad at the expense of works in minority languages and that diaspora populations are denied legitimate channels for experiencing works in their native languages. It drives up piracy and delegitimises the very idea of paying for media.

Notable Replies

  1. Won't happen. Understanding ms. Reda's point would require a majority of MEPs to be able to process syllogisms in their heads. Uh,...without asking that nice man in the Armnani suit first.

  2. It doesn't hurt the truly "independent" artists, because they will use their own independent distribution system, and they will choose not to use geoblocking.

    The theory seems to be:
    It could hurt the semi-independent artists who use existing distribution infrastructure. Let's compare two British artists: one makes a "big budget movie", the other one a "small indie movie".
    The "big" artist will maximize their profit by negotiating the price for UK distribution and the price for Austrian distribution of the German dub of their work separately.
    The "small" artist will sell to some UK-based online streaming service, which I can't access from Austria. His market in Austria is not big enough to get some Austria-only streaming service to carry it.

    The Catalan thing is true, though. There is no legal way to get a stream of a Catalan TV series in Austria.

    What I'd really like, though, is some mandatory licensing scheme. I don't speak Catalan, so I won't shell out 9.99 Euros a month to subscribe to a Catalan video streaming service. But if there's a good low-budget programme in Barcelona, I want a Catalan currently living in Finland to be able to add English subtitles to it and resell/redistribute it to me.

    I want to the artists, the producers, the guy who made the subtitles, etc., to get about the same amount of money from me that they would have got if an Austrian streaming service I do subscribe to had decided to fund German subtitles for it and add it to their lineup.

    I'm consistently part of the "long tail" in my tastes, and the present system concentrates all power and money in the "mainstream".

  3. I suspect that it could: the present system does make certain large-volume sellers more profitable(because it allows for price discrimination between regions, and price discrimination typically allows the seller to capture more of the surplus value in a transaction, according to Orthodox Economics); but it imposes a substantial transaction cost to 'open' a given market:

    If you were to impose a common market on everyone, price discrimination ability would decline; but it would be sufficient to have a work on sale anywhere for it to be available to buyers everywhere.

    The one interesting thing to see is how vendors would respond to, say, a relatively poor; but nontrivially english-speaking, country: historically, they'd probably release; but throw up roadblocks to arbitrage trading. If doing so were illegal, would they be willing to write off those customers; by selling the english language version only at UK-level prices, or would they attempt some other way of discouraging UK customers from buying the cheaper version?

  4. I suspect the reason for territorial geoblocking in the EU comes from the dozens of collecting societies (a la RIAA or MPAA) that populate the continent.

    Both the SGAE in Spain and the GEMA in Germany want a part of the cake. If someone purchases a work in Catalan from a Spanish website from Germany who gets the "author's rights management" share? It is less about hurting sales or independent authors and 100% more about greedy corporations who prefer to block content before not profiting from it.

    Did you know that if you play independent American music not affiliated to the RIAA or other collecting societies in Spain in a bar or a wedding, the SGAE (the local RIAA) has the rights to demand you to pay performance fees (Sometimes up to 3000€!) but yet they have no obligation to pay anything to the artist if they don't contact the society asking for that particular year reproduction rights and even then they have to pay a fee?

    Yes, I know, it's wicked. Greedy. Plain EVIL.

    I don't know if other European collecting societies are equally greedy and assholish, but I suspect it is the case...

  5. If speakers of a less common language, when barriers to access to material in other languages are removed, choose it some or all of the time, aren't we edging dangerously into treating them as hosts for their interesting language, rather than people, in some of our concern over preserving it?

    There are plenty of flagrantly unethical ways to eliminate a language; and we would do well to remember that they've been deployed with zeal from time to time; but it isn't terribly obvious that "access to stuff in other languages" one of them. If anything, isn't curtailing such access likely to be more coercive?

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