EU decides to save Wikipedia and internet memes, for now

Members of the European Parliament voted to strike down a controversial copyright law that could have broad implications on internet memes, Wikipedia, and news content. In June, the bill passed the European Union’s Legal Affairs Committee, known as Juri, but Members of Parliament (MEPs) voted 318 to 278 against the proposed copyright legislation on July 5. The bill will be sent back to committee for revision ahead of a newly scheduled September vote.

At the center of the controversy of the bill are two articles. The first provision, known as Article 13, would require internet companies to install content filters to prevent unauthorized uploads of copyrighted materials, a proposal that could have legal implications for memes. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), academics, researchers, and even Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, had written an open letter to European regulators ahead of the June committee vote urging them to not support the copyright directive.

“By requiring Internet platforms to perform automatic filtering of all of the content that their users upload, Article 13 takes an unprecedented step toward 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,” the EFF letter stated, noting that the burden of monitoring falls squarely on the shoulders of small European businesses and startups. The EFF argued that larger American companies could afford to bear the cost of compliance.

While supporters of the Copyright Directive argued that the rules would have given publishers, copyright owners, and artists more control over their content, opponents said the laws would stifle creativity and innovation on the internet. Numerous music labels and artists such as Sir Paul McCartney urged MEPs to vote in favor of the changes, noting that Article 13 “would address the value gap and help assure a sustainable future for the music ecosystem and its creators, fans, and digital music services alike.” Following the vote, BPI Music, a group that represented the interest of music labels in the UK, said that they will work with MEPs to “explain how the proposed directive will benefit not just European creativity, but also internet users and the technology sector,” the BBC reported.

Opponents argued that the changes could jeopardize the free spirit of the internet — and more importantly — memes. Given the use of artificial intelligence in content filtering, systems would not be able to distinguish parody, satire, and memes in fair use cases against copyright infringement. Creative Commons chief Ryan Merkley said that “if the Beatles had uploaded the cover songs they played in their early days today, the proposed upload filters would likely have blocked them.”

The second controversial provision of the legislation is Article 11, which opponents categorized as a Link Tax. Article 11 requires companies like Facebook and Google to buy licenses from publishers before linking to their stories. These articles essentially reverse earlier precedents set by EU courts. In a 2016 decision, the court ruled that simply linking to copyrighted materials does not count as infringement. In a separate 2012 ruling, the EU court in Luxembourg said that sites should not be compelled to install or otherwise operate content filters to check for privacy.

Opponents to the copyright directive claimed online organizations such as Wikipedia and GitHub would be at risk of shutting down because of the Link Tax. “If the proposal is approved, it may be impossible to share a newspaper article on social networks or find it on a search engine,” opponents, including Berners-Lee, had collectively argued in the open letter from June. If the bill is passed in a September vote, the EU law could have implications for future legislation in the US.

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