As we have been covering in the last couple of articles, a controversial EU Copyright Directive has been under discussion at the European Parliament, and in a surprising turn of events, it voted to reject fast-tracking the tabled proposal by the JURI Committee which contained controversial proposals, particularly in Art 11 and Art 13. The proposed Directive will now get a full discussion and debate in plenary in September.
I say surprising because for those of us who have been witnesses (and participants) to the Copyright Wars for the last 20 years, such a defeat of copyright maximalist proposals is practically unprecedented, perhaps with the exception of SOPA/PIPA. For years we’ve had a familiar pattern in the passing of copyright legislation: a proposal has been made to enhance protection and/or restrict liberties, a small group of ageing millionaire musicians would be paraded supporting the changes in the interest of creators. Only copyright nerds and a few NGOs and digital rights advocates would complain, their opinions would be ignored and the legislation would pass unopposed. Rinse and repeat.
But something has changed, and a wide coalition has managed to defeat powerful media lobbies for the first time in Europe, at least for now. How was this possible?
The main change is that the media landscape is very different thanks to the Internet. In the past, the creative industries were monolithic in their support for stronger protection, and they included creators, corporations, collecting societies, publishers, and distributors; in other words the gatekeepers and the owners were roughly on the same side. But the Internet brought a number of new players, the tech industry and their online platforms and tools became the new gatekeepers. Moreover, as people do not buy physical copies of their media and the entire industry has moved towards streaming, online distributors have become more powerful. This has created a perceived imbalance, where the formerly dominating industries need to negotiate with the new gatekeepers for access to users. This is why creators complain about a value gap between what they perceive they should be getting, and what they actually receive from the giants.
The main result of this change from a political standpoint is that now we have two lobbying sides in the debate, which makes all the difference when it comes to this type of legislation. In the past, policymakers could ignore experts and digital rights advocates because they never had the potential to reach them, letters and articles by academics were not taken into account, or given lip service during some obscure committee discussion just to be hidden away. Tech giants such as Google have provided lobbying access in Brussels, which has at least levelled the playing field when it comes to presenting evidence to legislators.
As a veteran of the Copyright Wars, I have to admit that it has been very entertaining reading the reaction from the copyright industry lobby groups and their individual representatives, some almost going apoplectic with rage at Google’s intervention. These tend to be the same people who spent decades lobbying legislators to get their way unopposed, representing large corporate interests unashamedly and passing laws that would benefit only a few, usually to the detriment of users. It seems like lobbying must be decried when you lose.
But to see this as a victory for Google and other tech giants completely ignores the large coalition that shares the view that the proposed Articles 11 and 13 are very badly thought-out, and could represent a real danger to existing rights. Some of us have been fighting this fight when Google did not even exist, or it was but a small competitor of AltaVista, Lycos, Excite and Yahoo!
At the same time that more restrictive copyright legislation came into place, we also saw the rise of free and open source software, open access, Creative Commons and open data. All of these are legal hacks that allow sharing, remixing and openness. These were created precisely to respond to restrictive copyright practices. I also remember how they were opposed as existential threats by the same copyright industries, and treated with disdain and animosity. But something wonderful happened, eventually open source software started winning (we used to buy operating systems), and Creative Commons became an important part of the Internet’s ecosystem by propping-up valuable common spaces such as Wikipedia.
Similarly, the Internet has allowed a great diversity of actors to emerge. Independent creators, small and medium enterprises, online publishers and startups love the Internet because it gives them access to a wider audience, and often they can bypass established gatekeepers. Lost in this idiotic “Google v musicians” rhetoric has been the threat that both Art 11 and 13 represent to small entities. Art 11 proposes a new publishing right that has been proven to affect smaller players in Germany and Spain; while Art 13 would impose potentially crippling economic restrictions to smaller companies as they would have to put in place automated filtering systems AND redress mechanisms against mistakes. In fact, it has been often remarked that Art 13 would benefit existing dominant forces, as they already have filtering in place (think ContentID).
Similarly, Internet advocates and luminaries see the proposals as a threat to the Internet, the people who know the Web best think that this is a bad idea. If you can stomach it, read this thread featuring a copyright lobbyist attacking Neil Gaiman, who has been one of the Internet celebrities that have voiced their concerns about the Directive.
Even copyright experts who almost never intervene in digital rights affairs the have been vocal in their opposition to the changes.
And finally we have political representatives from various parties and backgrounds who have been vocally opposed to the changes. While the leader of the political opposition has been the amazing Julia Reda, she has managed to bring together a variety of voices from other parties and countries. The vitriol launched at her has been unrelenting, but futile. It has been quite a sight to see her opponents both try to dismiss her as just another clueless young Pirate commanded by Google, while at the same time they try to portray her as a powerful enemy in charge of the mindless and uninformed online troll masses ready to do her bidding.
All of the above managed to do something wonderful, which was to convey the threat in easy-to-understand terms so that users could contact their representatives and make their voice heard. The level of popular opposition to the Directive has been a great sight to behold.
Tech giants did not create this alliance, they just gave various voices access to the table. To dismiss this as Google’s doing completely ignores the very real and rich tapestry of those defending digital rights, and it is quite clearly patronising and insulting, and precisely the reason why they lost. It was very late until they finally realised that they were losing the debate with the public, and not even the last-minute deployment of musical dinosaurs could save the day.
But the fight continues, keep contacting your MEPs and keep applying pressure.