Intellectual property

Battle over EU copyright law heads for showdown

Brussels to vote on directive, supported by artists and news agencies, that opponents say could destroy the internet.

A protest outside YouTube’s King’s Cross office

It is an argument that has drawn in the likes of Paul McCartney, Plácido Domingo and the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as pioneers of the internet from Tim Berners-Lee to the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales.

Fought with hashtags, mailshots, open letters and celebrity endorsements, the battle over the European Union’s draft directive on copyright heads for a showdown this week.

After two years of debate, members of the European parliament will vote on Wednesday on the legislation, which could change the balance of power between producers of music, news and film and the dominant websites that host their work.

Proposed in 2016 to update copyright law for the age of Facebook and Google, the directive has unleashed a ferocious lobbying war. Lawmakers have been bombarded with millions of emails and thousands of calls, many based on standard scripts written by lobbyists. Some have even received death threats, according to the French MEP Virginie Rozière.

Critics claim the proposal will destroy the internet, spelling the end of sharing holiday snaps or memes on Facebook. Proponents are exasperated by such claims, described by German Christian Democrat Axel Voss as “totally wrong” and “fake news”.

Amid last-minute writing and rewriting of amendments, the final outcome cannot be predicted. The proposals were rejected by the European parliament in July, despite earlier support in a relevant committee.

Among the latest to mobilise in favour were 165 film-makers and screenwriters, including the British director Mike Leigh, who launched an appeal at the Venice film festival last week calling on EU lawmakers to pass the law. In July McCartney pressed MEPs to stop tech firms exploiting musicians.

Europe’s biggest news agencies have also urged MEPs to vote for the law, as they accused Google and Facebook of “plundering” the news and their ad revenues, resulting in a “threat to democracy”.

“For the sake of Europe’s free press and democratic values, EU lawmakers should press ahead with copyright reform,” said a statement signed by 20 agencies, including the Press Association and Agence France-Presse.

Opponents are no less forceful. Wikipedia shut down its pages in some countries in protest at the plans, which it claims would force the closure of its user-generated encyclopaedia. Berners-Lee is among 70 internet luminaries to oppose the law, arguing it would be transform the internet from an open platform into a tool for “automated surveillance and control”. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, has raised concerns about “prepublication censorship”.

One of the most hotly disputed sections is article 11, which would require internet companies to pay newspapers, magazines and agencies for posting “snippets” of their work – for example, the headline, picture and text bundles on Facebook feeds and Google News.

The other contested point is article 13, which would make platforms such as YouTube liable for copyrighted material, requiring them to have agreements with rights holders of music and film.

The music industry argues the rise of the internet giants has created a “value gap” that harms people trying to break into the business. YouTube pays music companies 20 times less than a “fairly licensed service” such as Spotify, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. It says the penalty on artists is magnified because YouTube is so dominant, with 1.8bn users a month.

“That is fundamentally unfair,” said Dave Rowntree, the drummer in Blur, on a recent visit to Brussels to meet European lawmakers. “YouTube have rather cleverly found a niche for themselves where they can have their cake and eat it. They can use clever artificial intelligence software to see what the user is doing … yet when it comes to having to pay out a fair share they say ‘no … we just provide a website’.”

Rowntree rejected the suggestion that only record labels and established artists would benefit from the directive. “It makes little difference to me. I am not here to argue for more royalties for me. I’m doing fine, most of my money is made out of radio play and touring and we are not a huge YouTube band … it is a big impediment to young, up-and-coming bands.”

Internet platforms, increasingly known in Brussels as “Gafa” (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon), insist they are not opposed to copyright reform, but contend that the plans on the drawing board will destroy the internet by requiring them to have censorship filters to check for copyright violations.

“The only way to scan the platform continually is to have automated filters in place. There is no other way to do it,” said Siada El Ramly, director general of EDiMA, a Brussels group representing Facebook, Google and other internet platforms. She said filters “won’t be able to discriminate whether it is a commercial business or an individual putting the content up … it is not infallible and mistakes will be made.”

The industry also objects to the cost of having to create filters. YouTube had already spent $60m (£46m) on a content identification system, said El Ramly. “It is a very big cost to take on board, and it is not a one-off – it is something that needs to be maintained.”

Massive costs? Impossible demands? Voss, who is in charge of the file in the European parliament, said he had heard this story before.

“We have had this with the banks, we have had this with the telecoms [industry] and now with the internet giants: that regulation done by the EU regulator will lead to something catastrophic,” he said. “We will not end the internet.”

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