On the 21st March a number of European Wikipedia sites did the unthinkable and went dark for the day. They replaced their regular interface with a screen bearing the words ‘THIS IS OUR LAST CHANCE’. The site then exhorted any visitor to contact their local EU representatives to stop the European Parliament passing its latest Copyright Directive. Reddit displayed a similar notice, urging users to ‘Save The Internet’. Other major sites, including the always reputable PornHub, took a similar stance, calling for action against the proposed Directive.
The controversial Directive is the first update to the EU’s copyright rules since 2001. By and large, the majority of its provisions do not import anything too radical. However, Articles 11 and 13 of the Directive could alter the landscape of the Internet if passed. These Articles both attempt to give greater rights to publishers and content creators on the Internet. Article 11 specifically allows news companies a two-year term of copyright for their works, meaning that publishers must grant permission before their works can be reproduced over the internet. This does not apply to the use of individual words, very short extracts, private or non-commercial uses, or hyperlinking. Under this Article, journalists are also entitled to an appropriate share of revenue generated from their publications on information society service providers. Meanwhile, Article 13 has potentially more drastic effects. According to this provision, online content sharing service providers (YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr etc.) have to obtain authorisation from right holders to allow access to online content. Essentially, online platforms must copyright filters so that no unauthorised content can be displayed. Unsurprisingly, this has proven controversial.
Article 13 has drawn particular ire because it will force online platforms to screen all their online content. This could lead much freely available material to become inaccessible. It could also lead to abuse by copyright trolls. In fact, it may be the first time in which information is no longer allowed to freely diffuse across the Internet. Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that both Articles aren’t very focused. While it is admirable to give content creators more rights, the articles don’t stipulate what is fair use and what is a breach. A content filter will have to distinguish when a work is being discussed, satirised, or plagiarised and sometimes that line can run very thin. They could also block original content in case it veers too close to something previously done. Moreover, if for instance a large platform like Facebook does block even 1% of unauthorised content, that is potentially millions of affected users. This will lead to a tidal wave of appeals which is unlikely to please anyone.
Of course, there are several sides to every controversy and the Directive is not without its ostensible benefits. For example, Article 11 and 13 do allow exceptions. If an online platform has made ‘best efforts’ to secure permission, they may be excused. Article 11 also permits exceptions for reproducing works when cultural heritage groups and research organisation carry out research. In the broader sense, the article does tip the balance back in content creators’ favour. Debbie Harry of Blondie, writing in the Guardian, said the directive will fix the ‘value gap’ created by the Internet and allow artists to negotiate better licenses. Additionally, in this author’s opinion, it is hard to feel sympathy for the likes of Google and Facebook. These are multinational publicly-traded companies who engage in business practices that are not always in the right. Their businesses may suffer, but they will likely be able to take the hit.
Overall, the EU’s Copyright Directive is a crucible for our Internet Age. If it passes, the way we use the Internet in Europe will undoubtedly. But artists and journalists may rediscover some power. If it doesn’t pass then the Internet is still an unfiltered, unbounded treasure house of information, but large companies will have successfully suppressed a law. Whatever happens, the future is uncertain.
By Daniel Forde – Law Editor