EU Parliament votes for copyright reform

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On 12 September, EU members of parliament approved the EU copyright directive – intended as an update for the digital age – despite a previous vote against it back in July.  That vote in July centred on criticism of two key provisions:

Article 11 – dubbed the ‘link tax’, it forces online platforms like Google and Facebook to pay publishers for showing news snippets or linking to news stories on other sites. The Silicon Valley giants have previously been accused of plundering smaller websites and news agencies of their news and stories, thereby depriving them of the number of ‘hits’ they would have received and the knock-on ad revenue. Critics of this Article – apart from the likes of Google and Facebook themselves – have been people like Stephen Fry, and internet creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who argued that it would restrict access and delivery of information online and threaten internet freedoms.

Article 13 – dubbed the ‘meme ban’, it is favoured by musicians and artists as it imposes a legal obligation on online platforms like YouTube to enforce copyright laws by checking for infringing content. Currently the onus is on copyright holders themselves to enforce their rights. The change means websites that allow users to post text, images, or sounds have to incur significant time and expense proactively monitoring and filtering it.  This is, understandably, backed by musicians, as it seeks to curb online streaming of pirated music, films, and tv shows.Firms like YouTube and Facebook benefit from significant online traffic (thereby earning significant ad revenues) as their users access pirated material, while the creators are not paid for it.  However, critics of Article 13 protested that its broad scope would effectively ban parodies shown on social media, like memes and remixes, which use copyright material.  Another worry were the costs involved, as to filter content in this way is very expensive – YouTube’s system for filtering copyrightable material, for example, cost $60m. Critics are, rightly, worried that this would mean small website companies would be put out of business, or be non-compliant with the rules, deterring deter start-ups.

Changes made

The criticisms of the two Articles above resulted in the EU parliament voting against the directive in July, which itself was a worry – there hasn’t been an update to EU copyright rules since 2001 and one is greatly needed. Thankfully, changes generally acceptable to both sides have now been made. These are:

Article 11 – the link tax – the sharing of just hyperlinks themselves, or individual headlines, will not be an infringement, although previewing anything more than that will mean the original website or journalist will have to be reimbursed. All individual users, as well as non-profit platforms (like Wikipedia) will be exempt – meaning that internet freedoms and freedom of speech is not curtailed. The only entities affected are the larger online platforms, like Google and Facebook, who will now have to pay the creator/author .

Article 13 – copyright filtering – the concern that this article would have put small companies out of business and deter start-ups due to the high cost of filtering technology has been allayed; small and micro platforms are now excluded from the directive’s scope, as are individuals and Wikipedia-like platforms.

What next?

The directive faces a final vote in January, although it’s expected to be passed. After that, EU members states have two years to pass their own domestic laws to make sure they are in line with the directive’s objectives. EU directives are goals to be met, rather than laws themselves, so how countries implement it will vary. It remains to be seen how each country will bring in these changes in practice.