Content Across Borders: Madonna, Ringo, and the EU

Apr 03, 2018

Back around the turn of the millennium, my job took me around the world planning international conferences and exhibitions. I was fortunate enough to visit the Far East, Africa, and North America as well as most of Europe. It was always fascinating to experience cultural and behavioral differences, even between outwardly similar nations--Germany, say, compared to Sweden or France. But no matter where I was in the world, at some point during the taxi ride from the airport, there always seemed to be a Madonna song on the radio. And in many countries, it wasn’t long before I saw a young boy or girl wearing a soccer shirt featuring the iconic English teams Manchester United or Liverpool.     

In today’s hyper-connected world it’s truer than ever that, driven by the power of global brands and entertainment icons, content wants to travel across borders. Social media enables people to share entertainment with friends, family members, or wider networks wherever they might be in the world.

But from the rights-holders’ point of view, cross-border paid content is complex. News consumers in the UK who wish to get a sense of what’s going on by reading, watching, or listening to US news outlets will often find that audio or video is geo-blocked outside the USA. Fair enough, since we’re hardly prime targets for US advertisers.

And up to now, a Norwegian HBO subscriber trying to watch a movie while on holiday in Italy would be presented with a message telling them that the service "is only available in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland".

The “Digital Single Market” has long been an important goal for the European Commission. In 2016, 64% of Europeans used the internet to play or download content such as games, films, or music – increasingly, via mobile devices. A Eurobarometer survey in 2015 indicated that young people, in particular, wanted to be able to use their paid content subscriptions wherever they are traveling in the EU.

Now, with the introduction of new rules on content portability which came into force on April 1, the European Union is making it easier for paid content subscribers to have seamless access to their online content services when they are temporarily in another member state of the EU – on vacation, say, travelling for business, or commuting between countries.

Content covered by the “Portability Regulation” includes film subscription services, music, sports, games, and ebooks. Video on demand services such as Netflix will have to provide traveling consumers with access to the same catalog of content that they would have been able to choose from at home. Providers of free content can choose to opt-in and allow portability, in which case they will be bound by the new rules.

According to Tibor Navracsics, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth, and Sport, the regulation opens new doors to citizens while at the same time protecting creators and those investing in the production of cultural or sport content.”

In the UK, the picture is, of course, complicated by the unfolding Brexit negotiations, with UK-based providers raising concerns about how portability will function once the UK leaves the EU. In response, the British government says that it will ensure that UK legislation will be “amended as appropriate to reflect the UK’s future relationship with the EU.”

So Europeans, at least, can look forward to a frictionless future of online content. But despite the popularity of streaming services, consumers retain a fondness for physical entertainment products.

In the UK, vinyl records have enjoyed a decade of consecutive growth, with sales up almost 2,000% since 2007. Vinyl accounts for 3% of music consumed in the UK – small compared to streaming (50%) and CD (30%) but indicative of consumer appetite for varied content available in varied formats. According to a report from the British Phonographic Industry, “many consumers of all backgrounds appreciate the utility of streaming services to discover music that is new to them and which cater to their daily listening needs, whilst purchasing recordings by favoured artists on vinyl and CD that they may wish to gift, own and collect.”

As the launch of the Portability Regulation approached, I was pleased to see news coverage of Ringo Starr going to Buckingham Palace to receive a knighthood for services to music--21 years after Paul McCartney was similarly honored, and 53 years after all four Beatles went to the Palace to receive MBE medals. After the ceremony, Ringo – now officially “Sir Richard Starkey” – told reporters that he recently had dinner with Paul McCartney and "we were both actually laughing about where we came from, and we've ended up in the palace and it's now Sir Paul and Sir Richard."

The lesson for content creators? New content formats may come and go, but the good stuff won’t go away.

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