MEPs vote for controversial copyright reform - now let's make it work!

by Jane Whyatt

MEPs have adopted the new Copyright Directive that will give more rights to creative people such as musicians, media workers, journalists, and movie-makers. The directive is highly controversial. The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom welcomes the new legislation – with certain reservations.

Social media and copyright_900X600 The EU Commission first proposed changes to digital copyright law, amid the rapidly evolving new media landscape. Such reforms, subject to EU parliamentary approval, have caused controversy among the public, media and other organisations. (Image: public domain)

On 26.March 2019, the European Parliament decided to adopt the long-discussed Copyright Directive. In the run-up to this decision, thousands of people protested against the new legislation. The main argument of the critics was that automated upload filters would extinguish playful discourse in pop culture and damage freedom of expression in general.

The supporters of the directive pointed out that we cannot continue to let the platforms earn millions from content that is created by artists and media workers who don’t see a cent of the revenues. This weakens any actor in the media industry and thereby journalism itself.

We'll be watching out for the effect on press freedom.

ECPMF Managing Director Lutz Kinkel says:

The copyright directive is a critical issue. From our perspective, it has to fulfill three tasks. Firstly, it must preserve freedom of expression and leave, for instance, room for satire. Secondly, it has to oblige the platforms to pay for the creative content they are using. Thirdly, it must ensure that artists, musicians, photographers, and writers are the main beneficiaries. If the directive does not fulfill these goals, it has to be dumped. We will scrutinise the effects in detail – and publish our summary 600 days after the directive is put in place."

The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), which had strongly advocated for the directive, is not fully convinced of the final text, but urged MEPs to vote for adopting it.

"We know that everything is not solved, but I strongly believe this directive can give us tools to defend existing rights, improve authors' rights in the digital economy, and ensure remuneration is shared with journalists in a fair way," says Mogens Blicher Bjerregard, EFJ president and member of the ECPMF Executive Board.

Opponents of the Directive called public demonstrations on 23. March 2019 and on 21. March, in protest against the new law, Wikipedia blacked out for its online services in German, Greek, Danish, and Slovakian for one day.

ECPMF Chair Henrik Kaufholz fears the anti-copyright lobby, led by the Pirate Party, is manipulating young people who do not understand that journalists, film-makers and other creative people must be paid for their work. Kaufholz stresses: "Downloading material is stealing someone else’s work. Anyone who has worked in newspapers  - as I have - knows this. We always check who owns the quote, who owns the photo. And if in doubt, we leave it out." 

Article 13 – unlucky for some?

The most controversial clause of the new Directive is Article 13

It requires big tech companies such as YouTube to scan content that is being uploaded and, if it contains copyrighted material, to negotiate a licence agreement. This means that the creators can be fairly paid for their content. Despite staunch opposition especially from YouTube and its users, the platforms can actually earn money from this as they will be enabled to place targeted paid advertisements next to this content.

Uploads that are just short clips, memes, mashups, satire, parody, and illustrations for reviews are exempt. And small companies or organisations with fewer than five million unique monthly visitors to their site are also exempt.

Upload filters – what do they actually do?

The big tech companies do not want to pay for disseminating copyrighted content because this disrupts their business models in two ways: commerical and technological. 

The commercial imperative is that they want as much content as possible, and it must be high-quality to achieve maximum plays, shares, downloads, and likes – ideally going viral to maximise the profit from advertising.

And in technical terms, the algorithms that recognise different types of content are still being trained to spot facial characteristics, locations, weather, music genres – the whole range of diverse creative content. If the platforms need to screen each item and pay for some of them, they will not have instant access to real-time data for these training purposes.

Expert Sean Sullivan of F-Secure, a Helsinki-based cyber security company, told ECPMF:

"Upload filters work in two ways. The signature way of doing it: copyrighted material is uploaded or identified by its owner, and a digital signature is created that the platform uses to identify the material if uploaded by anybody. So for example, Sony Music has identified its catalog with YouTube, and if you were to upload a karaoke video with Sony’s music… the ad revenue - if any - will be sent Sony’s way and not yours.

"Google, YouTube and others already use upload filters. Other companies use third-party services. The signatures are 'fuzzy' and there can be lots of false positives… like if you were to upload a video of your dog doing something cute and there's some music on the radio in the background.

"There’s also child exploitation materials that are very strictly signature-based. You cannot upload such material, naturally.

"The second way: machine learning is used to identify likely copyrighted material and offensive material. Companies such as Google already have access to huge volumes of copyrighted material, and machine learning can be used to 'teach' algorithms to identify material that looks the same, even if it hasn't seen it before.

"False positives are a problem. A lot of pink skin in a video could be pornography… or it could be a bunch of pigs. True story, from years ago, related to Google Images search, I think. It’s difficult to completely automate."

Politically, the copyright directive has split many parties. Directive proponent Axel Voss - the German MEP who is the Rapporteur for Copyright in the European Parlaiment - comes from the conservative, otherwise pro-business CDU party. Part of the Greens, and other German parliamentarians from parties such as Die Linke and the aforementioned Pirate Party, strongly oppose the directive, which was first proposed by the EU Commission in 2016.

The monitoring organisation Vote Watch Europe notes that the last time there was a vote in July 2018, France gave strong support across all shades of political opinion. The Vote Watch infographics show that there is a geographic split in Europe, with Baltic and Scandinavian countries opposing the direcitve and western states being in favour.

A notable exception here is Ireland, which hosts the European headquarters of many American tech companies.

Follow the money trail

The campaign against upload filters is largely funded by big tech companies. Google has a special unit with 14 staff members based in Brussels. In July 2018, Digital Music News cited an estimate that Google had already spent €31 million trying to get rid of Article 13. 

The umbrella organisation EDRI European Digital Rights Initiative is largely funded by other digital giants including Twitter, Mozilla and Microsoft, according to its latest transparency report. On the other side of the coin, Supporters of Article 13 include the music industry and publishing rights agencies that collect royalties on behalf of authors, film-makers and musicians.

Technology might help too. Blockchain now offers the possibility of automated micro-payments, in a transparent system that shows the creator where, when and how their content has been used - and puts a tiny fee into the copyright owner's bank account. Berlin-based Copytrack is already in business, promising to find stolen photographs and enforce the copyright payment. 

The European Parliament’s Rapporteur on the Digital Single Market Copyright Directive, German CDU (Christian Democrat) MEP Axel Voss will hold a press conference  at 15:00 CET on 26. March 2019. You can watch the EU Parliament livestream here.