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‘Link tax’ and death of memes? EU advances copyright controls

‘Link tax’ and death of memes? EU advances copyright controls
Memes banned. Remixes outlawed. Parody videos removed. Critics say this would be the outcome of the EU adopting two controversial copyright rules that were just approved in committee.

Critics are unhappy with Articles 11 and 13 of the EU Copyright Directive, which were cleared by the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament on Wednesday and now face a floor vote scheduled sometime in July.

Dubbed the “link tax” by critics, Article 11 would require online platforms to pay for links to news and other content they refer to. While proponents said it was intended to make Google and Facebook share the profit they make with news organizations that are struggling in the modern market, critics have pointed out it could penalize linking to content for the purpose of criticism or commentary. It was narrowly approved by the committee, with 13 votes in favor and 12 votes against.

German MEP Christian Ehler (CDU-EPP) is the principal advocate of Article 11. He called it “an important step for the future of the creative industries in Europe.”

“There is a big problem if all those who bring our cultural diversity in Europe to life... can no longer live from their work because online platforms are not prepared to involve them properly," Ehler said in a statement.

Article 13 is even more controversial, requiring the automatic removal of any material that appears to violate copyright. Critics say this would condemn memes, sampling, news footage and even public domain parliamentary recordings. Platforms would also be held legally liable for copyright violations by their users. This measure advanced with 15 votes in favor and 10 opposed.

Even as Article 11 would force online platforms to pay for content, Article 13 would result in stifling competition and arguably further empower major players like Google or Facebook, which, unlike smaller fish, would have the money and expertise to implement automated censorship and user moderation required to comply with the law. The platforms would also be incentivized to err on the side of censorship to avoid penalties for copyright infringement by their users.

“These measures would seriously undermine basic internet freedoms," said German MEP Julia Reda (Pirate Party-Greens), a prominent critic of both articles.

A number of internet luminaries, including WWW inventor Tim Berners-Lee and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, have also spoken out against Article 13.

“By requiring Internet platforms to perform automatic filtering all of the content that their users upload, Article 13 takes an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the Internet, from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users,” said the letter signed by Berners-Lee, Wales and dozens of others that was sent to MEPs last week.

Author and activist Cory Doctorow called it a ”foolish, terrible idea,” pointing out that the only filters even remotely able to remove content as required by the law are currently run by American companies, “meaning that US big tech is going to get to spy on everything Europeans post and decide what gets censored and what doesn't.”

There is no way for AI to decide whether the use of copyrighted work falls within legal exemptions such as quotations or parody. Those exceptions are not consistent across the EU’s 28 member states, nor does the EU have US-style fair use laws. This means that even if the copyright owner does not object to the use of content in memes, remixes, mashups or other creative work, the creators would still technically violate the law.

As the legislation advances toward being enforced, people concerned about a looming death of meme culture in Europe are responding just with that - pro-meme memes.

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