European laws governing the digitization of content such as books, movies and music need a major re-working in order to keep Europe relevant in the digital age, said the European Commissioner for the information society and telecoms Viviane Reding on Thursday.
Laying out her manifesto for a renewed five-year term in the job, Reding said in a speech that she shares the frustrations of Internet companies including Google, which would like to offer interesting business models in the field of online book publishing, "but cannot do so because of the fragmented regulatory system in Europe."
She dismissed the existing legal framework around the downloading of content such as music and film from the Internet, arguing that it forces users to become pirates and called for "simple, consumer-friendly" rules for accessing digital content in Europe's single market.
Around 60 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds admit to having illegally downloaded content from the Web she said, citing a European Commission survey. Piracy is increasingly being seen as "sexy" among what Reding called the young "digital natives."
"Are there really enough attractive and consumer-friendly legal offers on the market? Does our present legal system for Intellectual Property Rights really live up to the expectations of the Internet generation? Have we considered all alternative options to repression?
Have we really looked at the issue through the eyes of a 16 year old? Or only from the perspective of law professors who grew up in the Gutenberg Age?" Reding asked.
"Growing Internet piracy is a vote of no-confidence in existing business models and legal solutions. It should be a wake-up call for policy makers," she told the conference hosted by Brussels think tank, the Lisbon Council.
In addition to overhauling the online copyright rules, Reding said she wants to create a Europe-wide public registry for books that have gone out of print or whose authors are unidentifiable.
"More than 90 percent of books in Europe's national libraries are no longer commercially available, because they are either out of print or orphan works," Reding said, adding that a Europe-wide registry "could stimulate private investment in digitization, while ensuring that authors get fair remuneration also in the digital world."
Google welcomed her comments. "Book digitisation projects send a strong signal that authors, publishers, libraries and technology companies can work together to bring back to life the world's lost books," said Santiago de la Mora, Google's head of European book partnerships in a statement.
Creating a registry is "important," he said, adding: "We want to play our part."
Much of her speech focussed on how information and communication technologies can help dig Europe out of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.
In addition to her ideas for boosting digital content she also repeated her call for the rapid adoption of the raft of laws collectively known as the telecoms package, which were blocked in spring by a disagreement between lawmakers over Internet users' rights.
The telecoms package covers everything from the distribution of radio frequencies, to the creation of a Europe-wide regulator, to protecting users' privacy on line. The broad aim of the laws is to forge one single telecoms market for the 27 nation bloc.
"Experts also estimate that the present regulatory fragmentation in telecoms costs Europe's businesses 20 billion euros per year -- a cost factor that, in view of the present crisis, we should eliminate as soon as possible by bringing the reforms into force, and by applying the new rules effectively," Reding said.