Unpacking the EU's Controversial Copyright Directive

EU Controversial Copyright Directive

What it is and how it may affect the Internet as we know it.

Over the past several years, the European Union has been reviewing its decades-old copyright laws in an effort to protect the original material created by an artist. The increase in user-generated content on sites such as YouTube and Facebook has naturally exacerbated the problem of copyright violations. Rules thus far — in the US and around the world — have tasked platforms with removing content that violates copyright laws upon notification by the owners, but that doesn’t mean that such content is constantly monitored. There is simply too much of it.

However, this spring, the EU has changed the game. The European Union Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market (the new law) was passed by the EU Parliament on March 26 and the Council on April 15. The Parliament and Council are the EU’s two governing bodies that work much like our House and Senate. Now, the 28 member countries will have two years to figure out how to implement the directive in their respective national laws.

At first, protecting the livelihoods of creatives and journalists doesn’t sound controversial at all. Yet, there are two articles that have critics ranting and raving all over the currently uncensored Internet.

Originally referred to as Article 11 (now Article 15), this section has been dubbed the “link tax.” Under this article, news aggregator sites, like Google News and even Facebook, will be required to pay publishers for using snippets of their articles as news links. While individuals sharing links will not be affected, this part of the law limits startup online news sites as they will surely lack the funds to pay for licensing. Furthermore, the article neither defines what constitutes a news publisher nor does it provide a guideline for how much of a snippet requires compensation.

The Impact on Social Media

Article 13 (now Article 17) will have the most impact on social media platforms as it calls for the prevention of illegally sharing copyrighted material. Again, the directive is not specific in terms of implementation, but most likely the majority of social media platforms will be required to introduce an upload filter. Critics have long argued that memes are parodies and therefore not copyrighted, and the latest version of the law allows sharing memes and GIFs—but since the filters probably won’t be able to distinguish them from original material, this form of creative expression could be limited or altogether prevented.

There is a way that platforms may avoid the new law, although very few sites will meet the following requirements: (1) been available for fewer than three years, (2) have an annual turnover below ten million Euros and (3) have fewer than five million unique monthly visitors.

Both sides of the aisle are completely understandable. Illegally sharing copyrighted material and freely linking to news articles exploits the talents of the creative community. Yet, shifting the liability to the sites themselves forces censorship that could restrict the freedom of expression. Properly compensating creators for their work is most certainly a noble pursuit, but the ways in which companies may be required to meet these new standards could forever change the way the Internet looks. For better or for worse, we’ll find out over the next two years.