News & Cues: France wants a tax on devices to protect culture

This photo was shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and has been taken from Terrazzo's Flickr Photostream
This photo was shared under the Creative Commons Attribution License and has been taken from Terrazzo’s Flickr Photostream

Earlier last week, the French Government went public with its idea of taxing French smartphone, tablet and computer users – all in the illustrious name of preserving some French Culture!

So just to be clear, this tax is meant to aid in the preservation of French Culture? How?

One of 80 proposals included in a Report submitted by Pierre Lescure, the former head of the cable television channel – Canal Plus, to French President François Hollande on how to preserve France’s “exception culturelle” (the distinctive culture of France), the Smartphone tax proposal states that the money collected from this tax will go towards compensating moviemakers, musicians and authors who might have lost out on royalty payments because of free streaming or downloads of their work.

This proposal estimates that even a one per cent smartphone and tablet tax would yield about 86 million Euros each year. This amount would supplement the money already raised by a similar licence fee levied on the storage capacity of personal computers that are capable of downloading e-books, music and films.

The rationale behind the tax – it would provide much needed incentive to independent artists who are striving towards enriching the unique and distinctly French culture, in a world claimed to be dominated by the English language and the internet.

That’s nice. But then why am I squinting my eyes, hoping to understand what this proposal is really trying to say?

The proposal strikes out on three counts – one, there is no real connection between levying a tax on devices and then claiming it to be a cultural conservation measure; two, how does this system incentivize creativity among artists who are unpublished and consequently, not part of the royalties distribution scene; and three, this proposal sounds more like an anti-piracy effort rather than a cultural conservation measure.

Devices like smartphones, tablets and computers are not used solely for the purposes of downloading or streaming artistic works off the internet. Sure, these devices might be popularly used for these purposes, but they are also intended to carry out a number of other useful technical functions. Levying a tax on all these devices because of the off-chance that they are being used to illegally download and stream works is stretching things too far. Perhaps the proposal needs to establish a clearer link between the object of the taxation policy and its subject – an issue that might already be clear in the proposal, but since it is yet to be made publicly available, patience will have to suffice for now. Related to this issue is the question of determining whose culture is worthy of being protected. Will the money go towards the artists whose work has been downloaded or streamed the most over a particular period of time, or is there some other identifying criteria for figuring out who deserves to be compensated through the tax payer’s money?

The proposal clearly states that the purpose of the tax is to ensure the conservation of the unique and distinct culture of France. Such a noble plan necessarily needs to be more inclusive. Although the proposal states that the tax proceeds will be used to compensate artists, it might be better if such resources are diverted towards the development of infrastructure (physical, economic and social) that might foster more creative environments in the country. Going by the current plan in the proposal, the Government is only going to go so far as to help out artists who have been able to get their work some kind of formal recognition, leaving behind all those other artists who already have careers devoid of any formal compilations of their work. In other words, the tax works for musicians who have songs uploaded on the internet – but what about all those acts that depend on live performances for recognition and an income?

Last, why does the proposal make a big deal about protecting French Culture in an era of the English language and the internet? Why imply that the “free culture of the internet” is a bad thing? If anything, a good cultural conservation proposal would encourage the free exchange and distribution of creative ideas; not stifle them and label their flexible procurement methods as wrong and deserving of compensation.

Hmm, so we don’t need taxes to protect our culture?

No no, we need financial resources! But, these resources need to be obtained through avenues that are effective and have been adequately rationalized. A similar tax in India would probably not yield effective results, since free downloading and online streaming is a phenomenon that is almost impossible to track, let alone control, in a country as populated as India.

Financial resources are important – they’re important to develop the physical, social and economic infrastructure that goes into cultural preservation. Whether the solution then is a tax imposed on devices, is something that the French experience might help us understand in the days to come.

This was just a brief overview of a news update relevant to artists, but if you would like to know more or if you have something to say, then be sure to leave a comment or get in touch with me.

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3 Comments

  1. Have to say that this initiative is the most ridiculous yet by the French Government. But then the French have a history of taxation in the context of art especially films. The way to analyse this is to see if even with taxation (irrespective of the mode of consumption), whether the artists are profitable. They aren’t. Adding another tax does not help. It is similar in India as well. (Another colonial legacy) Though, it is limited to movies and large commercial shows. Another similarity in India: In Bangalore, non-Kannada movies are taxed more against movies in other languages. Is that justified? The answer may not be as clear as it may be in the French context. Another development from a legal standpoint in India is the introduction of Competition Law these days in these kind of scenarios. Its got some Competition Law profs in Munich definitely interested in Indian Cinema.

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  2. Well, it is one of 10 proposals 🙂 I think my major grouse with this proposal relates to determining who will be compensated, how much will they receive, and when. I presume there is some documentation somewhere establishing the standards to determine this stuff – but i haven’t found it yet. Actually this particular French experience had me thinking about doing some research on entertainment taxes in India – often taxation and licensing restrictions are used as a means to regulate culture, which is probably why there’s that distinction in the application of standards with reference to regional language movies, and then again those in English. Competition law in the entertainment industry isn’t really a new thing – copyright societies like ASCAP and BMI in America have been at the centre of anti-trust suites via the Sherman Act and so on. In India, I guess the Entertainment industry as a whole is waking up to the legal implications of what’s happening here and elsewhere.

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