EU Copyright Directive: Will US tech giants comply or ditch the EU market?

EP Press conference on the copyright directive
Date: 26/03/2019 © European Union 2019 – Source : EP
Photo: Mathieu CUGNOT

The Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) approved yesterday the new Copyright Directive by 348 votes in favour, 274 against and 36 abstentions. Should the member states accept this vote, the reforms will be effective immediately and EU countries will have two years to implement them.

The copyright changes will affect mainly big online platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Google News, which despite their long fight and opposition on this issue, will eventually have to comply or else leave the EU to avoid being fined. However, smaller companies as well could be influenced to a certain extent as the cost of this law’s implementation might be very high and could drive some of them out of business even.

Directive’s analysis

According to the European Parliament (EP), the directive’s goal is to create a framework where large tech firms share their revenue with rights holders such as musicians, performers and script authors who will be able to make a better agreement for the use of their works. However, the way this can be achieved is being left to the online platforms which, even if they aren’t obliged to incorporate filters, they should find the tools to ensure that unremunerated material is not on their site.

Snippets of news articles can continue appearing in Google News as long as they are “very short”. Online platforms such as Wikipedia and GitHub would be excluded from the directive’s spectrum. Furthermore, start-up platforms, which exist less than three years, have a turnover of less than 10 million euros and their audience does not overpass 5 million unique viewers per month, will face a much lighter burden meaning that their only obligation will be to remove the unauthorised works from their website.

Post-vote reactions

The European Commission welcomed the new Copyright Directive and said that it promotes the values and ideals of Europe. More specifically, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip and Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel said yesterday: “The Copyright Directive protects freedom of expression, a core value of the European Union. It sets strong safeguards for users, making clear that everywhere in Europe the use of existing works for purposes of quotation, criticism, review, caricature as well as parody are explicitly allowed. At the same time, the Directive will improve the position of creators in their negotiations with big platforms which largely benefit from their content. Writers, journalists, singers, musicians and actors will find it easier to negotiate better deals with their publishers or producers.”

Monique Goyens, Director General of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) objected to article 13 (now article 17) of the proposed law which will lead platforms to use upload filters to prevent unlicensed copyrighted content from being published online. In detail, Monique Goyens mentioned:  “We fully support the aim of ensuring fair remuneration for creators, but this should not happen to the detriment of consumers. There is a very high risk that the new law will do more harm than good. This is not the modernised copyright law that creators and consumers need but rather another attempt to protect an industry that has consistently resisted to deal with the impact of technological change on their business model.”

US giants’ response

Google together with Twitter and Facebook would be certainly among the companies to be heavily affected by the new copyright directive. Google’s reaction after EP’s approval was imminent and awaited. A Google spokesperson told the Guardian that: “The EU copyright directive is improved but will still lead to legal uncertainty and will hurt Europe’s creative and digital economies. The details matter, and we look forward to working with policymakers, publishers, creators and rights holders as EU member states move to implement these new rules.” Similarly, YouTube said in a press release that “Article 13 could still have unintended consequences that may harm Europe’s creative and digital economy”.

A spokesperson of Twitter expressed the firm’s worries regarding the future of internet after yesterday’s outcome and stated that “will continue to engage with EU member states and civil society as the implementation process evolves”. Facebook though declined to comment on this topic; at least for the time being.

Thus, the hefty lobbying of the US companies didn’t pay off as the Directive is about to become a law once the EU member states approve it in the coming weeks. The online platforms will then be forced to either leave the EU, as Google had stated in the past for Google News, or adapt to the new digital reforms. Which of the two outcomes will prevail?

Is Google going to remove its infamous News service from the Old Continent entirely as it has done so in the past in Spain due to national copyright law changes? The latter seems quite improbable and is most likely that the tech firm will modify its business model and strategy in order to adjust to the upcoming copyright alterations.

All in all, the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, even if it aims at empowering freedom of expression and holders’ rights, is still too ambiguous and might not bring the wished outcome, as the past has shown in similar laws implemented in Germany and Spain. Another point that also needs to be stressed is the fact that online platforms’ filtering could lead to excluding not only unauthorized but also legitimate content; unless more innovative solutions and tools are being incorporated.

The above copyright reforms are of course about to constitute EU law once all key member states approve the text adopted by the EP during the European Council’s vote in April.

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