The European parliament approved the largest, and most contentious, overhaul of copyright legislation in two decades on Monday. When the directive comes into effect, it will be the biggest change to internet regulation since General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
The copyright changes are best known because of their two most controversial clauses, articles 11 and 13, which have been the nexus of a ferocious battle between corporate lobbyists, online activists and freedom of expression groups.
What do the changes mean for the internet?
Will I still be able to upload content online?
The legislation emphasises people will still be able to upload content, but technology firms, including Google, have warned they will have to remove vastly more content automatically.
Companies such as YouTube and Facebook already remove music and videos that are copyrighted. For example, YouTube scans uploads and matches them up to a database of files submitted by content owners, giving the original creator of the work the option to block, monetise or simply track it. Under the new legislation, tech companies will be more liable for any copyrighted content uploaded on to their platforms, particularly if they already run automated scans.
Why are the big tech firms against the move?
Companies affected by the changes argue the reforms are unrealistic and existing systems already pay artists fairly. YouTube in particular has warned EU-based users could be cut off entirely from videos.
Are others against the changes?
Yes. Many campaigners have argued the copyright directive will be harmful to free expression on the internet, since the only way to guarantee compliance is to simply block any user-generated content that references other copyrighted material in any way, including criticism, remixes, or even simple quotes.
In fact, some warn the law could paradoxically help big tech, since only the very largest companies will have the resources to comply with the regulations. Raegan MacDonald, the head of EU public policy at the independent browser company Mozilla, says: “With a chance to bring copyright rules into the 21st century the EU institutions have squandered the progress made by innovators and creators to imagine new content and share it with people across the world, and have instead handed the power back to large US-owned record labels, film studios and big tech.”
Giles Derrington, the associate director of policy at the industry body techUK, agreed: “We are particularly concerned about the impact the new copyright directive will have on competition within the digital sector, given the high cost of meeting the requirements the directive now creates.”
What does it mean for online news?
Where article 13 makes it harder for tech companies to release user-generated content, article 11 relates specifically to the sharing of news articles.
Publishers argue it is increasingly difficult for news organisations to continue funding quality journalism, and that technology firms which monetise the sharing of news should pay their share.
The directive introduces a new requirement on “information sector service providers” to secure the right to share news articles. The likes of Google News and Facebook will still be able show “snippets” of news articles, and non-commercial encyclopaedias like Wikipedia have also be exempt.
“The inclusion of news agencies in the text of the directive can also be interpreted as a recognition of the quality of our work and of the importance that news agency journalism has, especially for safeguarding European media as a whole, as European news agencies are the main providers of quality news to most of the other media organisations in Europe,” said Alexandru Giboi, the secretary general of the European Alliance of News Agencies.
What about memes?
A key argument against the directive is that it could serve as a “meme ban”, given the strong rules against uploading copyrighted material without permission, and the fact that much shareable content depends on things like TV and movie scenes.
Tweaks made this year were intended to specifically protect the use of such content “for purposes of quotation, criticism, review, caricature, parody and pastiche”. But technology companies say the protection is impossible to uphold, since no automatic filter can usefully determine whether a given upload is parody or simply infringement.
When will it come into force?
EU member states will have two years to implement the new rules, from the date it finally passes out of the European council – probably in May or June this year. It means the UK will essentially be able to decide if it wants to implement the rules if it has left the EU by then.
Raffaella De Santis, an associate at the law firm Harbottle & Lewis, said the size of the European market meant the UK would probably follow suit. “Whether the UK leaves Europe with or without a deal, it’s hard to see that it would not follow Europe’s lead on this.”