EU adopts copyright reform backed by content creators, opposed by tech giants

Published 15.04.2019 16:35

European Union countries on Monday adopted copyright reforms championed by news publishers and the media business, but opposed by US tech giants and internet freedom activists who worry it could chill the sharing of information.

The overhaul had triggered unprecedented lobbying from supporters, namely $1 trillion creative industries, and opponents like Google which makes huge profits from the advertising generated alongside the content it hosts.

EU governments on Monday backed the move launched by the European Commission two years ago to protect Europe's creative industries, which employ 11.7 million people in the bloc.

Under the new rules, Google and other online platforms will have to sign licensing agreements with musicians, performers, authors, news publishers and journalists to use their work.

"When it comes to completing Europe's digital single market, the copyright reform is the missing piece of the puzzle," the Commission's president Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement.

Romania, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said the "balanced text" adopted by ministers meeting in Luxembourg was a "milestone" toward building the bloc's digital single market.

EU sources said Italy, Finland, Sweden, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Poland voted against the controversial legislation. Belgium, Estonia and Slovenia abstained.

But the opposition was not enough to block the overhaul.

"I am very glad that we have achieved a balanced text," said Valer Daniel Breaz, Romanian Minister for Culture and National Identity.

He said the text creates "multiple opportunities for Europe's creative sectors, which will thrive and better reflect our cultural diversity and other European common values."

Breaz added it also offers the same "for the users, whose freedom of expression on internet will be consolidated."

"This is a milestone for the development of a robust and well-functioning digital single market.

An EU statement said "the new rules ensure adequate protection for authors and artists, while opening up new possibilities for accessing and sharing copyright-protected content online throughout the European Union."

The culmination of a process that began in 2016, the revamp to European copyright legislation was seen urgent as it the rules had not been updated since 2001, before the birth of YouTube or Facebook.

The reform was strongly backed by artists and media companies, who want to secure revenue from web platforms that allow users to distribute their content.

But it was strongly opposed by internet freedom activists and by Silicon Valley, especially Google which makes huge profits from the advertising generated alongside the content it hosts.

Wikipedia blacked out several European sites in protest last month.

Proponents of the law said they expected a backlash.

"The entertainment lobby will not stop here, over the next two years, they will push for national implementations that ignore users' fundamental rights," tweeted Julia Reda, a German member of the European Parliament for the European Pirate Party.

"It will be more important than ever for civil society to keep up the pressure in the Member States! #SaveYourInternet," she wrote.

She said critics could take their case to court but it would be slow and difficult and that the best thing would be to monitor fair implementation.

Under the new regime Google-owned YouTube, Facebook's Instagram and other sharing platforms will have to install filters to prevent users from uploading copyrighted materials.

Google said the new rules would hurt Europe's creative and digital economies, while critics said it would hit cash-strapped smaller companies rather than the tech giants.

Poland said the overhaul was a step backward as the filter requirement may lay the foundation for censorship.

The European Magazine Media Association, the European Newspaper Publishers' Association, the European Publishers Council, News Media Europe and independent music labels lobbying group Impala welcomed the move.

EU countries have two years to transpose the copyright directive into national laws.

What does the directive say?

The most vigorously debated part of the legislation is a section that makes companies responsible for making sure that copyrighted material isn't uploaded to their platforms without permission from the original creator. It puts the legal onus on platforms to prevent copyright infringement but critics say it will end up having a chilling effect on freedom of expression on the internet and could result in censorship.

Another section of the bill that caused concern requires search engines and social media sites to pay for linking to or offering up snippets of news articles.

How will it affect internet platforms?

Some sites would be forced to license music or videos. If not, sites would have to make sure they don't have unauthorized copyrighted material. Critics worry that could lead to costly automatic filtering. And paying for links could create further costs.

That could give tech giants an edge over smaller companies. Google said last year it spent more than $100 million on Content ID, its copyright management system for approved users on YouTube, where more than 400 hours of content is uploaded every minute. The figure includes both staffing and computing resources.

How will it shape internet content?

Critics say it could act as censorship and change internet culture.

They say the automatic filters are blunt instruments, deleting some material that should be allowed online. YouTube has warned of unintended consequences, saying that in cases where copyright is uncertain, it would have to block videos to avoid liability.

Some consumers worry that the new rules would bring an end to parodies and viral internet "memes" that have powered online culture and are often based on or inspired by existing songs or movies or other content. The EU denies this.

"Despite recent improvements, the EU Directive falls short of creating a balanced and modern framework for copyright," Maud Sacquet, senior policy manager at the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a lobby group. "We fear it will harm online innovation and restrict online freedoms in Europe."

Will it help content creators?

It depends on whom you ask. The music industry and other groups that collect royalties say the directive will help give writers, artists and creators more protection of their rights and incomes, by requiring tech giants such as Apple, Facebook and Google to pay them more for their work.

Some authors and artists fear they won't earn significantly more money but their creativity will be stifled. Google estimates it has paid out more than $3 billion to rights holders through its Content ID system, which was created in 2007.

How have people reacted?

Some high profile artists have spoken out in favor. Former Beatles member Paul McCartney wrote an open letter to EU lawmakers encouraging them to adopt the new rules.

But many appear worried it will change the internet as we know it. More than 5.2 million people signed an online petition against the directive. Internet luminaries such as Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales have spoken out against it. So has the former frontman for the band Fugees, Wyclef Jean, who has said he is better off financially because fans can freely share his music on internet platforms.

Last month, tens of thousands of people marched in cities across Germany to protest against the directive. Wikipedia's German-language page was temporarily blacked out in protest and visitors were greeted with a statement from online encyclopedia authors urging them to ask their EU lawmakers to stop the bill. Poland's leader has said his country will not implement the directive, arguing it threatens freedom of speech.

What's next?

The EU's member countries have two years to comply with the directive by drafting their own national laws. Six countries — Italy, Sweden, Poland, Finland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — voted against it, so implementation is likely to be uneven, setting the stage for legal challenges.

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