If Elvis were a digital entrepreneur today

Internet attorney Nancy Prager explains how an EU push to create a common digital copyright policy may serve as the de facto legal framework for the Internet.

Much like latter-day New World explorers, Europeans have staked their flag on the Internet to claim control of the digital frontier.

The European Union has begun to harmonize the copyright laws of its member countries related to creative content online. While the United States will still own the hardware underpinning the Internet, the Europeans, if successful, will determine how we use it.

The EU's stated objective is to craft a copyright law that supports innovative business models and facilitates the broadcast and delivery of diverse online creative content across borders. Currently, that's quite an involved process. If multimedia companies like RealNetworks or eMusic plan a launch in Europe, they will have to comply with the laws of each member country.

But times are changing. The European Union realizes that compliance with 27 different copyright laws and licensing regimes is a significant barrier to entry for companies and a detriment to its citizens.

The European Union's harmonization process could not come at a more opportune time.

The EU's new position is that a simplified copyright compliance process is the necessary prelude to the creation of a vibrant digital economy. The European Parliament plans to consider the recommendations for a harmonized copyright system by the middle of this year. According to the official notice, the changes are designed to accomplish the following:

1. Remove the barriers to entry that multijurisdictional licensing create.

2. Encourage copyright owners to make content available online with the confidence that piracy will not cannibalize the economic value of the underlying works.

3. Create procedures to make clearing content easier and less expensive, including the ability of third parties to use works for whom the owner of the rights cannot be located (so-called orphan works).

4. Limit the negative impact of digital rights management through interoperability standards and labeling requirements.

5. Formalize a standard of conduct between access/service providers, rights holders, and consumers to encourage legal use and access of creative content and to discourage unauthorized file sharing.

The removal of barriers companies face complying with copyright laws spread across multiple jurisdictions is unique to the European Union?s common economic policy. But the remaining objectives also apply to the challenges new media companies, copyright owners, and consumers face globally.

Elvis Presley had fans around the world long before the Internet, but he never toured outside of North America. His popularity overseas soared after his music got played on local radio and his movies screened around the world. Elvis' record label, RCA, had a network through which it manufactured and distributed his music. The company complied with local laws and licensing schemes and was able to market Elvis' music abroad.

Elvis would have been able to shake his hips live for people around the world because there now are even Web sites that facilitate the streaming of Internet-only concerts.

On their own, it would have been impossible for Elvis, Sun Records, or even Colonel Tom Parker to develop the infrastructure required to expose his music from Memphis to Bangkok. Were he around today, Elvis might have become truly independent after leaving Sun Records. That's because Colonel Parker would have the ability to distribute and market the music--at least digitally--on a global scale.

Nowadays, independent labels and artists are able to directly distribute their music around the world through services like IODA. Artists' own Web sites and third-party sites like MySpace.com are accessible around the world. Elvis would have been able to shake his hips live for people around the world because there now are even Web sites that facilitate the streaming of Internet-only concerts.

Just 10 years ago, teenagers relied on local radio and school friends to discover music. Nowadays, their music discovery choices are endless and their friends may be next door or around the world. Teenagers can easily buy or listen to music over the Internet. But the current copyright labyrinth that providers must navigate to offer the music legally perversely facilitates the illegal and unauthorized distribution and performance of music.

The European Union's harmonization process could not come at a more opportune time. To create a common copyright policy for its member countries, the European Union will have to tackle issues that are hampering the activities of entrepreneurs, creators, and consumers. The solutions the European Union creates will serve as a guide to other countries, and perhaps the de facto legal framework for the Internet as the digital frontier continues to develop.

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