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.

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