Copyright Industries Reveal Their Ultimate Goal: An Internet Where Everything Online Requires A License From Them

Yesterday, Mike took apart an extraordinarily weak attempt by the UK’s music collection society, PRS for Music, to counter what it claimed were “myths” about the deeply-harmful Article 13 of the proposed EU Copyright Directive. On the same day, the Guardian published a letter from the PRS and related organizations entitled “How the EU can make the internet play fair with musicians”. It is essentially a condensed version of the “myth-busting” article, and repeats many of the same fallacious arguments. It also contains some extremely telling passages that are worth highlighting for the insights that they provide into the copyright industries’ thinking and ultimate goal. Here is the main thrust of the letter:

This is not about censorship of the internet, as the likes of Google and Facebook would have you believe. The primary focus of this legislation is concerned with whether or not the internet functions as a fair and efficient marketplace — and currently it doesn’t.

Once again, there is no attempt to demonstrate that Article 13 is not about censorship, merely an assertion that it isn’t, together with the usual claim that it’s all being orchestrated by big US Internet companies. The fact that over two-thirds of a million people have signed an online petition calling for the “censorship machine” of Article 13 to be stopped rather punctures that tired argument.

More interesting is the second sentence, which essentially confirms that for the recording industry, the Copyright Directive — and, indeed, the Internet itself — is purely about getting as much money as possible. There is no sense that there are other important aspects — like encouraging ordinary people to express themselves, and to be creative for the sheer joy of creating, or in order to amuse and engage with friends and strangers. The fact that all these non-commercial uses will be adversely affected by Article 13 is irrelevant to the recording industry, which seems to believe that making a profit takes precedence over everything else. However, even if they choose to ignore this side of the Internet, the signatories of the letter are well-aware that there is a huge backlash against the proposed law precisely because it is a threat to this kind of everyday online use. Attempting to counter this, they go on:

It is important to recognise that article 13 of the proposed EU copyright directive imposes no obligation on users. The obligations relate only to platforms and rightsholders. Contrary to some sensationalist headlines, internet memes will not be affected, as they are already covered by exceptions to copyright, and nothing in the proposed article will allow rightsholders to block the use of them.

Techdirt pointed out yesterday why the first part of that is intellectually dishonest. The Copyright Directive won’t impose obligations on users directly, but on the platforms that people use, which amounts to the same thing in practice. The letter then trots out the claim that Internet memes will not be affected, and specifically says this is because they are already covered by EU exceptions to copyright.

This is simply not true. Article 5 of the EU’s 2001 Directive on the “harmonization of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society” lays down that “Member States may provide for exceptions or limitations”, including “for the purpose of caricature, parody or pastiche”. However, that is optional, not compulsory. In fact, nineteen EU Member States — including the EU’s most populous country, Germany — have chosen not to provide an exception for parody. Even assuming that memes would be covered by parody exceptions — by no means guaranteed — they are in any case illegal in 19 EU nations.

Licensing is not an option here. There are many diverse sources for the material used in memes, most of which have no kind of organization that could give a license. The only way for online companies to comply with Article 13 would be to block all memes using any kind of pre-existing material in those 19 countries without a parody exception. Worse: because it will be hard to apply different censorship rules for each EU nation, it is likely that the upload filters will block all such memes in the whole EU, erring on the side of caution. It will then be up to the person whose meme has been censored to appeal against that decision, using an as-yet undefined appeals mechanism. The chilling effect this “guilty until proven innocent” approach will have on memes and much else is clear.

The blatant misinformation about whether memes would be blocked is bad enough. But in many ways, the most shocking phrase in the letter is the following:

Actually, article 13 makes it easier for users to create, post and share content online, as it requires platforms to get licences, and rightsholders to ensure these licences cover the acts of all individual users acting in a non-commercial capacity.

There, in black and white, is the end-game that the recording industry is seeking: that every online act of individual users, even the non-commercial ones, on the major platforms must be licensed. But the desire to control the online world, and to dictate who may do what there, is not limited to the recording companies: it’s what all the copyright industries want. That can be seen in Article 11 of the Copyright Directive — the so-called “snippet tax” — which will require licensing for the use by online sites of even small excerpts of news material.

It’s also at the root of the core problem with Article 3 of the proposed EU law. This section deals with the important new field of text and data mining (TDM), which takes existing texts and data, and seeks to extract new information by collating them and analyzing them using powerful computers. The current Copyright Directive text allows TDM to be carried out freely by non-profit research organisations, on material to which they have lawful access. However, companies must pay publishers for a new, additional, license to carry out TDM, even on material they have already licensed for traditional uses like reading. That short-sighted double-licensing approach pretty much guarantees that AI startups, which typically require frictionless access to large amounts of training data, won’t choose to set up shop in the EU. But the publishing industry never cares about the collateral damage it inflicts, provided it attains its purely selfish goals.

Although it’s rather breathtaking to see the copyright world openly admit that its ultimate aim is to turn the Internet into a space where everything is licensed, we shouldn’t be surprised. Back in 2013, Techdirt wrote about the first stages of the EU’s revision of its copyright law. One preliminary initiative was called “Licences for Europe”, and its stated aim was to “explore the potential and limits of innovative licensing and technological solutions in making EU copyright law and practice fit for the digital age”. What we are seeing now in the proposed Copyright Directive is simply a fulfillment of these ambitions, long-cherished by the copyright industries. If you aren’t happy about that, now would be a good time to tell the EU Parliament to Save Your Internet. It may be your last chance.

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