The European Parliament recently voted against passing into law a copyright bill two of whose articles, 11 and 13, have stirred controversy. The final tally was 318 votes against adopting the proposed law and 278 in favor. There were 31 abstentions. The much-contested Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market – which in many ways serves as an updated version of a 2001 law tackling copyright-related matters – will now undergo revisions before it is voted on again in September.
What are Articles 11 and 13?
The new bill was meant to streamline standards for digital services and businesses, which have mushroomed and assumed multiple new forms since 2001. The problem is that the proposed law is often overly broad in scope and vague when it comes to specifics.
Article 11 authorizes news and media outlets to charge payment when their copyrighted links are shared; basically, it establishes a procedure for taxing links. Meanwhile, Article 13 stipulates that websites track and block use of their copyrighted material through content recognition systems.
While the bill may seem directed at the online streaming of pirated music and videos, it actually covers a lot more ground than that. Any online material that is classified as copyrightable, “including images, audio, video, compiled software, code and the written word,” is fair game.
Given that Internet giants such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter already have in place high-level content recognition and filtering mechanisms that block shared content deemed inappropriate or unlawful, they have a head start – perhaps an unbridgeable one – over smaller companies. The latter would need to invest in similar technology in order to fall in line with the proposed new copyright infringement standards, something which financial constraints may render difficult if not impossible.
Ironically, then, had the bill been passed into law, it would have consecrated the near-unassailable status of Internet titans against whom we have recently witnessed a supposedly transformative “techlash,” given growing unease with their power and reach.
An additional irony is that the directive would have pitted certain artists against their fans. When people share material online, they are essentially engaging in marketing. Artists know this, and some (though admittedly not all) are willing to forgo financial compensation in light of the greater exposure they receive.
Among the most notable artists supporting the proposed copyright law was former Beatles singer-songwriter Paul McCartney. In an open letter addressed to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), McCartney pleaded for more legal action to secure due compensation for artists, arguing that platforms such as YouTube are engaging in a form of exploitation.
Meanwhile, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), an official ambassador for UK-based record labels, announced that it sought to help the public understand how “the proposed Directive will benefit not just European creativity, but also internet users and the technology sector.”
Yet there are plenty of people on the other side of the fence. Following the vote, British Conservative MEP Sajjad Karim said, “Those large platforms that have clearly invested heavily in pushing this ‘internet is free for all unregulated space’ political agenda cannot now […] expect us to trust in their voluntary willingness to self-regulate.”
Significantly, Tim Berners-Lee, father of the World Wide Web, termed the directive an “imminent threat” to the Internet.
Also sounding the alarm was Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, who dismissed a statement by the European Commission that online encyclopedias would be left untouched because their sharing of content is protected by the Creative Commons License. He later added: “The Wikipedia community is not so narrow minded as to let the rest of the Internet suffer just because we are big enough that they try to throw us a bone. Justice matters.”
This wasn’t just talk. During the days leading up to the vote, Wikipedia swung into action. The Italian and Spanish versions, followed later by the Polish one, temporarily denied users access. Visitors were instead greeted with messages stating that the passing of the law would result in “new barriers, filters and restrictions” on content sharing, and that “censorship machines” would be used to “weaken the values, culture and ecosystem on which Wikipedia is based.” The free online encyclopedia called on the European Parliament to scrap Articles 11 and 13 entirely.
Expect both sides to gird themselves for another battle in the run-up to the September vote on a revised version of the directive.
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