How to protect intellectual property in the Internet age? The film industry, in particular, is suffering from piracy on the web and, so far, German politicians have very few answers to offer.
The first big debate in Germany about the Internet began in 2009. The government in Berlin had plans to block websites in order to fight child pornography on the web. But the draft idea led to an outcry among the web community with warnings that the method was ineffective and, at the same time, the beginning of censorship. The family affairs minister at the time, Ursula von der Leyen, was quickly given the nickname "Censorship Ursula".
Critics of the government proposal said the proposal would fail to fight child pornography while establishing a censorship mechanism for surveillance that would threaten the very freedom of the Internet and curtail basic rights.
The government plan was shelved, but a year later, parliament set up a commission to discuss the "Internet and digital society" which, so far, has made little progress. Censorship Ursula is no longer the family minister and plans to block websites are off the table. But now, another topic has become the focus of the political debate around the Internet.
Massive copyright violations
"Adjusting copyright legislation to the current digital world is the biggest challenge," said parliamentary state secretary Bernd Neumann at a recent Berlin symposium on protecting intellectual property.
"What is brushed off as harmless Internet piracy is in fact affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of artists and other people working in the creative media. But creative work is not a pasttime – it's a job that has to enable artists to earn a living," Neumann said.
The cinema and film sector has been especially hard hit. In 2010 alone, the industry in Germany suffered damages of some 450 million euros ($590 million) through movies pirated on the Internet, according to Mattias Leonardy, head of the organization to fight copyright violations. He says an estimated 3,7 million users had accessed illegal downloads or video streams.
Citing an example, Leonardy pointed to the download site kino.to whose owners where arrested in June, 2011. Apart from file sharing and downloads, more and more users are streaming videos. In this case, the movie is not actually downloaded but only temporarily stored in the computer's cache – which makes the matter legally even more difficult to tackle.
Sites, like kino.to, are financed by selling advertising space. Kino.to has millions of clicks each day and is a good platform to advertise if you want to reach those millions of users. The second source of revenue is so-called premium offerings where users pay to get faster connections. In the case of kino.to, the owners of the website earned millions with their concept. But of course none of that money ended up with the creative brains behind the movies or TV series, says Leonardy.
The advertising industry so far has been reluctant to voluntarily check whether any ads are placed on sites offering illegal downloads or streaming media. Internet providers who host the controversial sites equally refuse responsibility. One way out discussed at the symposium was for more attractive legal platforms to undermine illegal offerings.
But Bernd Neumann admits that on many Internet issues, the government is still in the process of finding its feet. A coalition agreement from 2009 said the government wanted to modernize copyright laws in order to guarantee "an effective protection of intellectual property."
Is a warning enough?
One of the proposals frequently put on the table is the idea of a warning system. This would mean that the copyright owners would be able to warn users who commit copyright violations. The information about the users would be given by the Internet providers.
But this model does not foresee fines or sanctions - as is the case in France or Britain. "Limiting or blocking someone's access to the Internet will not happen in Germany," says Hans-Joachim Otto from the German Economics Ministry.
The trade organization Eco, however, doesn't think that a mere warning is enough and is concerned that the model might violate EU laws on data protection. The German Justice Ministry is also opposed to a warning system.
One of the questions on the table at the Berlin symposium was why it is taking so long to arrive at a solution to the problem.
Thomas Jarzombek, a member of the parliamentary Commission on the Internet and Digital Society, explains that a certain consensus has to be found first before Berlin can push through legislation. He stresses that the opinions of Internet users and activists have to be taken into account because they express their views across all forms of media.
Jarzombek hopes that lobbying efforts and joining the discussion on Twitter, blogs and Facebook will raise the profile of the debate and reach those people, who so far have been opposed to any regulation.
Google will have to pay
At least on one issue Berlin seems to agree on. In early March, the government agreed on legislation to force search engines, like Google, to pay for news articles they present on their platforms. The idea is that search engines should pay a fee to the publisher behind the articles and some of the money would also go to the author.
The Berlin initiative has been widely welcomed by newspaper publishers, but not by the Internet community. "If publishers don't want their articles to show up on Google, they can easily prevent that," says Sebastian Nerz, chairman of Germany's Pirate Party.
For Nerz, it's just another example of how politicians and publishers do not understand the Internet. In his view, linking to articles is free advertising for a newspaper and not stealing content.
Author: Kay-Alexander Scholz / ai
Editor: Gregg Benzow