Squaring the content circle?

A pub landlady in England is a hero to the (non-Murdoch) press when she wins a ‘victory’ in the European courts over whether she’s entitled to buy her Premiere League soccer for public viewing from a foreign supplier.

It isn’t actually a win yet (just an opinion from the official court adviser) and, of course, the media’s glee is as much to do with Murdoch-bashing as celebrating free markets. But neither fact diminishes the event’s importance.

A few days later, Neelie Kroes, the EU Commissioner responsible for the Digital Agenda, said she was determined to end “fragmentation in the digital Single Market.”  This is a familiar theme from the Commission; piracy occurs when content is not made available in all markets, the answer is to make content simultaneously available across territories and in many different forms, by law if necessary. “National licensing can create a series of Berlin cultural walls. The price both in pounds and frustration is all too real, as creators are stifled and consumers are left empty-handed,” she declaimed.

Put like that it sounds a bit like motherhood and apple strudel, how can you disagree?  But a pay-TV operator and the rights holders that provide their content, might reasonably ask; “show me the money?”

Territorial and format rights are a complex market system that has developed over many years and driving that development, as with any other business, has been maximising profit for the players in it – including content producers and rights holders. It seems unlikely an apparently simple solution – make a simultaneous Europe wide licence and uphold free markets at the point of sale to consumers – is the answer to the undoubted challenge the old structure faces.

Either there’s an open market with one European price for content – thereby prejudicing smaller and/or poorer territories – or there are territory specific rights with restrictions on what happens to content under that deal.

If a main driver is to prevent piracy, the main victims are the same pay-TV operators and their rights holders who would object most strongly to the imposition of an open market. This being the case, though it may take longer than the EU wants, leaving the market to decide is the only solution that stands a chance.

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