The European Copyright Directive: What Is It, and Why Has It Drawn More Controversy Than Any Other Directive In EU History?
During the week of March 25, the European Parliament will hold the final vote on the Copyright Directive, the first update to EU copyright rules since 2001; normally this would be a technical affair watched only by a handful of copyright wonks and industry figures, but the Directive has become the most controversial issue in EU history, literally, with the petition opposing it attracting more signatures than any other petition in change.org’s history.
How did we get here?
European regulations are marathon affairs, and the Copyright Directive is no exception: it had been debated and refined for years, and as of spring 2017, it was looking like all the major points of disagreement had been resolved. Then all hell broke loose. Under the leadership of German Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Axel Voss, acting as “rapporteur” (a sort of legislative custodian), two incredibly divisive clauses in the Directive (Articles 11 and 13) were reintroduced in forms that had already been discarded as unworkable after expert advice. Voss’s insistence that Articles 11 and 13 be included in the final Directive has been a flashpoint for public anger, drawing criticism from the world’s top technical, copyright, journalistic, and human rights experts and organizations.
Why can no one agree on what the Directive actually means?
“Directives” are rules made by the European Parliament, but they aren’t binding law—not directly. After a Directive is adopted at the European level, each of the 28 countries in the EU is required to “transpose” it by passing national laws that meet its requirements. The Copyright Directive has lots of worrying ambiguity, and much of the disagreement about its meaning comes from different assumptions about what the EU nations do when they turn it into law: for example, Article 11 (see below) allows member states to ban links to news stories that contain more than a word or two from the story or its headline, but it only requires them to ban links that contain more than “brief snippets”—so one country might set up a linking rule that bans news links that reproduce three words of an article, and other countries might define “snippets” so broadly that very little changes. The problem is that EU-wide services will struggle to present different versions of their sites to people based on which country they’re in, and so there’s good reason to believe that online services will converge on the most restrictive national implementation of the Directive.
What is Article 11 (The “Link Tax”)?
Article 11 seeks to give news companies a negotiating edge with Google, Facebook and a few other Big Tech platforms that aggregate headlines and brief excerpts from news stories and refer users to the news companies’ sites. Under Article 11, text that contains more than a “snippet” from an article are covered by a new form of copyright, and must be licensed and paid by whoever quotes the text, and while each country can define “snippet” however it wants, the Directive does not stop countries from making laws that pass using as little as three words from a news story.
What’s wrong with Article 11/The Link Tax?
Article 11 has a lot of worrying ambiguity: it has a very vague definition of “news site” and leaves the definition of “snippet” up to each EU country’s legislature. Worse, the final draft of Article 11 has no exceptions to protect small and noncommercial services, including Wikipedia but also your personal blog. The draft doesn’t just give news companies the right to charge for links to their articles—it also gives them the right to ban linking to those articles altogether, (where such a link includes a quote from the article) so sites can threaten critics writing about their articles. Article 11 will also accelerate market concentration in news media because giant companies will license the right to link to each other but not to smaller sites, who will not be able to point out deficiencies and contradictions in the big companies’ stories.
What can I do?
Please contact your MEP and tell them to vote against the Copyright Directive. The Copyright Directive vote is practically the last thing MEPs will do before they head home to start campaigning for EU elections in May, so they’re very sensitive to voters right now! And on March 23, people from across Europe are marching against the Copyright Directive. The pro-Article 13 side has the money, but we have the people!