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Will the EU's new copyright directive bring an end to the age of memes?

  •  - By Tughans solicitors

    In March, the EU passed its controversial Copyright Directive, designed to control how copyrighted content is shared on online platforms. The Directive and its most controversial component, Article 13, requires online platforms to filter or remove unauthorised copyrighted material from their websites, placing the primary burden onto platforms, rather than users.

    Under current law, platforms are generally not responsible for their users’ actions as long as they take reasonable steps to remove any infringing content, but the new law imposes a higher “best efforts” standard, meaning platforms could be liable the moment a user uploads content they don’t have rights to.

    During the three-year debate around introduction of the new Directive, supporters of the law argued that it was about making sure that fair compensation goes to content creators/owners, and long overdue on the basis that the current user-driven framework for copyright protection was no longer fit for purpose. By contrast, its critics have maintained that the law is stifling and poorly defined, and will have a devastating impact on the internet’s role as an information sharing service.

    Even now, the battle rumbles on, with the Polish Prime Minister's office announcing on 23 May that it would bring a case against the Court of Justice of the EU challenging Article 13 of the Directive, on grounds that it might: "result in adopting regulations that are analogous to preventive censorship, which is forbidden not only in the Polish constitution but also in the EU treaties.”

    At one point, the author shared the fear of many that this new legislative frontier could mean the end of all memes. So is the furore over unlucky Article 13 a storm in a teacup, or grounded in legitimate concerns over the genuine threat it presents to a free internet?

    You’ll be stunned to know that as with most answers to legal questions, the answer is probably either (a) maybe; or (b) it depends. Here are some of the factors that we think might impact whether or not the internet of the not so distant future might look very different from the internet of today:

    1. Domestic Legislation: As with all EU Directives, individual Member States will have two years to turn the new rules into their own national law, so how the Directive plays out depends in part upon how different countries choose to interpret and implement its requirements in their own legislation.

    One potential problem with this is that there are likely to be varying national approaches towards regulating what is truly a global resource. If certain nations take a harder line, it’s likely that the most stringent approach will be the one that content sharing platforms will need to adhere to.

    2. Approach of the Platforms: More importantly, apart from the laws themselves, the approach of the platforms to abiding by those laws is what will make the difference. As we saw with GDPR, big multinational companies often tend to err on the side of caution, especially with new laws, and it seems likely that they will over-censor rather than under-censor in fear of being made an example of by a zealous court or regulator. 

    One way that this is likely to play out is through the use of automated upload filters to try to ensure that copyrighted content is screened out, but the nature of these technologies is such that they are still expensive and error prone. Whilst defenders of the new Directive have, rightly, pointed out that the law itself does not strictly require automated upload filter, and that this requirement was actually removed from an early draft of the law, the requirement on platforms to use “best efforts” to prevent the upload of infringing content could well impose that standard indirectly.

    Another risk is that platforms will be overly careful when it comes to disputes. Copyright law is not straightforward, and any lawyer will tell you that disputes over intellectual property can be complex (keeping us in gainful employment). Content platforms, especially SMEs, often lack the resources or the time of courts to make properly informed judgments in such disputes, and are likely to be disinclined to become involved - simply removing content where it is presenting an issue.

    As YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote in a blog post: "If the owners cannot agree, it is impossible to expect the open platforms that host this content to make the correct rights decisions." This raises a further concern around bad faith complaints, which have already proved to be a thorny issue for YouTube and other platforms. This would only be heightened if potentially infringing videos could not be uploaded at all.

    3. Exemptions: There are certain exemptions for content uploaded for the purpose of caricature or parody (including, sigh of relief, memes), for criticism or review, for short extracts, as well as less stringent requirements for new platforms with annual revenues under €10m, fewer than 5m monthly users and that have been around for under three years, which are subject to lighter takedown rules. 

    But as many commentators have pointed out, there are almost no platforms in Europe that fit all three categories, and to the extent that content platforms make use of automatic upload filters, it remains unclear how effective algorithms will be at determining what constitutes criticism or parody. 

    If 28 Member States can’t come to agreement on what these terms mean, it’s difficult to see how an algorithm developed by humans could fare any better. Generally, algorithms aren’t known for having a great sense of humour - or we might be able to try and programme one to resolve Brexit.

    If you or your business requires further advice or assistance navigating copyright or IP matters, please contact Andrew Kirke at Tughans solicitors andrew.kirke@tughans.com.

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    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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