The European Commission this week said the market for digital content distribution will not amount to much until the multitude of DRM systems become interoperable and content licensing takes place on a Europe-wide basis.
And it wants to see legislation to force the rules of the unified internal market on content licensing agencies and copyright holders.
The EC's demand should come as music to the ears of Apple, Napster and any other digital download provider currently attempting to license music for sale in multiple EU member states.
Last Friday, for example, Apple Europe chief Pascal Cagni said that the European launch of the company's iTunes Music Service might yet be delayed while Apple strives to put in place all the licensing deals it needs to sell downloads here. Unconfirmed rumour suggests Napster is facing similar difficulties.
The EC's comments come after an investigation into how copyright needs to be managed in the digital age and what it calls the "emerging Information society". Essentially, the EC wants to see a "true single market" for the provision of intellectual property rights, according to the EC's Internal Market Commissioner, Frits Bolkestein.
"Rightholders and commercial users deserve sound and modern management of these rights. That is why it is no longer possible not to address rights management at European level," he said.
Certainly digital distribution is inherently a border-less enterprise, and the market has to evolve accordingly. The music industry's pattern of multiple licensing regimes for each European country is increasingly at odds with the EU's goals of a unified European market for goods and services.
Cagni for one explicitly blames all those licensing regimes for the difficulties Apple is experiencing launching ITMS in Europe. Those problems would not exist if a single, Europe-wide licensing market was in place.
There's a balance to be struck. The EU said it recognises the need to ensure "the necessary protection and remuneration of authors and performers are balanced against the demands of commercial users". In other words, royalty payments need to be harmonised too.
To achieve all this, the EC wants collecting societies - the organisations that collect royalties and licence fees on behalf of content owners - to be governed through legislation enacted at a Community-wide level. "This would make it possible to ensure that collecting societies are transparent, and that established Community law in the field of intellectual property is properly applied," the EU hopes.
"It would foster the emergence of Community-wide licensing for the exploitation of rights," the organisation adds, through "common rules on collective rights management and on good governance of collecting societies."
Of course, Apple and co. are going to have to give up something themselves, in return for this unfied licensing regime. In particular, they must unifty in turn their DRM technologies, the EC says.
"A pre-requisite to ensure Community-wide accessibility to DRM systems and services by rightholders as well as users and, in particular, consumers, is that DRM systems and services are interoperable."
The Commission has launched a consultation exercise and is seeking comment from interested parties on legislation covering collective rights management. It wants to hear from contributors by 21 June by email. ®
The full version of the EC Communication is available here (PDF)