After some five years of contentious debate and negotiation, the European Parliament today voted to approve a sweeping copyright reform bill supported by publishers and media companies, but which critics say could harm free expression online and fundamentally alter the way the internet works.
By a 348 to 278 margin, MEPs approved a final version of the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, including two controversial provisions: Article 11, which will require web aggregators (like Google News) to negotiate with media companies for sharing snippets of their works; and Article 13, which observers say will require web platforms hosting user-generated content to filter uploads for intellectual property violations.
In a joint statement on the EU web site, Andrus Ansip, v-p for the digital single market and Mariya Gabriel, commissioner for digital economy and society, welcomed the outcome. “Today's vote ensures the right balance between the interests of all players—users, creators, authors, press—while putting in place proportionate obligations on online platforms,” the statement reads, claiming that the copyright revision will still protect free expression online while “improving the position of creators in their negotiations with big platforms which largely benefit from their content.”
In a separate statement, Rudy Vanschoonbeek, president of the Federation of European Publishers, also praised the vote’s outcome. “This Directive, the most hotly contested I have ever seen, will modernize copyright and bring certainty to stakeholders in a number of important areas,” Vanschoonbeek said. The FEP represents 29 national publisher associations in Europe.
In recent weeks, the years-long battle over the directive had become eerily reminiscent of the SOPA/PIPA battle in the U.S. in 2011 and 2012, with tech companies and the public lining up against the EU directive, and publishers and news organizations supporting it.
More than 240 media groups had signed a letter of support for the EU Directive. Companies like Google, on the other hand, as well as organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation were lined up against it. "We understand that laws need to be updated and adapted for the internet age," reads a Google press release. "However, the proposed EU Copyright Directive may have unintended consequences that could limit the variety of information available online."
Meanwhile, with EU elections coming up in May, the measure is unpopular with voters. More than five million signed an online petition against the directive, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets last weekend to pressure lawmakers to vote no on the directive. In addition, a number of popular internet services, including Reddit and Wikipedia, went dark last week in protest.
"Despite what EU lawmakers believe, we don’t live in a world where a few large rights holders control the copyright of the majority of creative works," argued Cory Doctorow, one of the directive's staunchest opponents, especially articles 11 and 13, on the EFF web site. "Every Internet user is a potential rightsholder. All three billion of them. Article 13 doesn't just require online services to police the copyrights of a few giant media companies; it covers everyone, meaning that a small forum for dog fanciers would have to show it had made 'best efforts' to license photos from other dog fancier forums that their own users might report—every copyright holder is covered by Article 13."
Despite the vote to approve the copyright revision, the battle is not over. The measure will next get a vote in the coming weeks before the Council of the European Union, though observers say passage there is not in doubt. And as a directive (rather than a regulation) each EU member state will then have two years to rewrite their own national laws to comply with the directive—a prospect that could still prove contentious in some member states.