More ancillary copyright madness: French proposal to tax websites for using image thumbnails to illustrate search results

Boudewijn van Heusden and his Wife Sophia Receiving Homage from the Legate of King Edmund
Open letter against ancillary copyright

We spend a lot of effort pointing out that additional copyright, like rights for specific groups of rights holders, are a problematic concept that has potential to cause a lot of damage to the Public Domain. Most of our coverage has focused on efforts to establish an ancillary copyright for press publishers. We have seen the introduction of such rights first in Germany and then in Spain in recent years, and in both cases the legislators have failed to reach their objective. Especially in In Spain the newly introduced rights have caused so much collateral damage that the news publishers themselves (who were supposed to be the beneficiary) have come out against the concept of an ancillary copyright.

Part of the argumentation why ancillary copyrights are a bad idea has been the fact that they have the potential to limit the access to information, and thus damage the Public Domain. Trying to boost specific business models by adding more types of rights to an already overly complex copyright system is the wrong answer to the challenges posed by the rise of the internet. New rights do not only affect the rights holders they are intended to help, but have a much wider impact on how we access information and culture.

This point is once more illustrated by a recent attempt in France to establish a new right that would require search engines and indexing services to pay royalties for the use of thumbnail images of copyright protected works. According to French proposal, which has been approved by the French Senate, this new right would be managed by one or more collecting societies, regardless of the intention of the rightholders whether to be financially compensated for the use of their works by search engines.

As with the Spanish ancillary copyright for press publishers, the compulsory collective management of this right means that it would also apply to works that have been made available by their creators under Creative Commons licenses, severely limiting the ability of creators to contribute to the Public Domain. The French proposal would also be very likely to affect online resources such as Wikimedia Commons or Europeana, even though these platforms are based on voluntary sharing of images.

This is why we joined forces with 14 other organisations and expressed concerns in open letters to the French Minister of Culture (en/fr) and the rapporteur of the Assmblée Nationale (en/fr )for the ‘Liberté de la création, de l’architecture et du patrimoine‘ law which contains the proposal. The letters warn that:

The current proposal […] will impact many online services and mobile apps, from search engines to creative commons models and Europeana. Money would be collected arbitrarily and without any realistic way of redistributing it accurately. Basically, every day activities of online users, such as posting, linking, embedding photos online, would be subject to a cloud of legal uncertainty.

It would isolate France in the European Union, at a time when courts across Europe have made clear these were lawful activities under national, European and international laws. It would isolate France globally, as a country where using images online would be subject to restrictive and unworkable practice.

We hope that the French legislator will have the wisdom not to introduce this new right. This would send a strong signal that introducing new exclusive rights in an already too complex European copyright framework is not a suitable instrument to support specific business models in sectors negatively affected by the internet. We are convinced that the answer to the challenges posed by digitisation in certain sectors does not lie in the creation of new rights, but rather in a re-balancing of the existing copyright rules.

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