European Parliament Approves Controversial Copyright Reforms

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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‘A good sign for the creative industries in Europe’, say those in favour, while opponents call the outcome ‘catastrophic’

MEPs approved highly contested copyright reforms on Wednesday in their second vote on the matter.

The vote took place amidst heavy lobbying by tech giants, who are opposed to the changes, while the European Commission has argued changes are urgently needed.

Following the vote, MEP Axel Voss, who has spearheaded the reforms through the European Parliament, said the outcome was “a good sign for the creative industries in Europe”, while Julia Reda of the Pirate Party, which opposed the changes, said the vote was “catastrophic”.

The reforms, first proposed by the Commission two years ago, are intended to shift the balance of power between internet giants such as Google and Facebook and those who produce content such as music, films and news.

The European Parliament in Brussels. Image credit: European Parliament
Image credit: European Parliament

Next steps

MEPs’ approval means the European Parliament can now begin negotiations around the directive with member states, in order to finalise the revised directive and bring it into force.

A final vote is scheduled for January of next year, after which, if approved, it must be implemented by member states.

As the revisions are not classified as EU regulations, member states will be free to implement them as they see fit.

The Commission argues current law has allowed content distributors such as YouTube to rake in massive profits while underpaying content producers, because it is not held legally responsible for the material on its website.

In seeking to close that loophole, however, internet firms say the Commission is going too far and would effectively make it impossible for user-created content such as memes to continue to exist.

Free speech groups, meanwhile, say the reforms would hamper freedom of expression.

Supporters of the reforms have included, most recently, a group of 165 film-makers and screenwriters, including the UK’s Mike Leigh, who launched an appeal in favour of the reforms at the Venice Film Festival last week.

Ad revenues at stake

Paul McCartney and Blur drummer Dave Rowntree have also said the reforms could help support emerging artists.

“That is fundamentally unfair,” Rowntree said of the fact that YouTube pays music companies 20 times less than a licensed service such as Spotify.

He said that YouTube is able to profit by analysing how users interact with content, “yet when it comes to having to pay out a fair share they say ‘no … we just provide a website’.”

In recent comments reported by The Guardian, he said the reforms would mainly benefit the “young, up-and-coming bands” that primarily benefit from exposure on YouTube.

Twenty news agencies including Agence France-Presse and the Press Association said the scheme would help redress a situation in which Google and Facebook are “plundering” news producers’ advertising revenues, creating a “threat to democracy”.

High-profile opponents have been equally scathing in their criticisms of the reforms, with web inventor Tim Berners-Lee amongst 70 internet figures who argued they would transform the internet from an open platform into a means of “automated surveillance and control”.

Wikipedia shut down pages in some countries to protest the plans and the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, has raised censorship concerns.

One of the most hotly debated provisions is Article 11, which requires payment to newspapers, magazines and agencies for posting “snippets” of their material, such as the headlines, pictures and text found on Facebook feeds and Google News.

Meanwhile, Article 13 would make YouTube and similar platforms liable for copyrighted material, and require them to have content deals with rights holders.

EU digital commissioner Mariya Gabriel said the proposals that have now been approved present no danger to the open internet, contrary to the messages put across through internet giants’ intensive lobbying efforts.

“None of the positions now on the table will destroy the internet,” she told the Financial Times.

Amendments

The European Parliament said it had specifically amended Article 13 so that it now requires content platforms to design their filters in such a way that they do not bar legitimate use of content, such as permitted quotations or parodies.

“The vote was not as close as the divided commentary in the run-up suggested it would be, no doubt because important amendments were made to the directive to satisfy concerns raised previously over the so called link tax and upload filter provisions,” said Shireen Peermohamed, partner at law firm Harbottle & Lewis.

The European Parliament’s position was approved by 438 votes to 226, with 39 abstentions.

Peermohamed said Britain’s exit from the European Union adds an interesting factor into the situation, since the directive may not yet be in force by the time the UK leaves the EU.

In that case, “we will have to wait and see to what extent its provisions will make their way into UK law”, she said.

“What is clear is that content owners, content creators and online platforms will now need to look carefully at how they may need to adapt their businesses to comply.”

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