It’s hard to decide what’s right and what’s wrong these days. There are so many people and so many organizations with so many different interests that it’s easy to get overwhelmed and to be fooled into believing the wrong things. And so it seems to be an option to give up and not have an opinion at all about many of the topics that seem to be beyond our sphere of influence.
The latest EU copyright reform is such a topic. Copyright, in general, is a topic you can have a lot of debate about: How can we save the independence of creators and guarantee fair compensation for creative work, which, of course, is a good thing? What constitutes fair use and what doesn’t? When is quoting and remixing a piece of work a form of creative expression and when is it just plain criminal theft? The lines are blurry.
Supporters of the new copyright directive point out that currently, there is no clear framework to compensate creators if their work gets used online. And they are right. Something has to be done.
Opponents of the new copyright directive fear censorship and a restriction of freedom of expression. The Web as we know it is in danger. And they are right, too. This danger is real and the battle seems to be lost already.
The biggest problem I see with the new copyright directive isn’t the general idea of trying to find a way to reinforce copyright. The problem lies in the way Europe tries to compensate their inaction from the past with protectionism. If you listen carefully to interviews with MEP Axel Voss, who negotiated the current agreement and is a strong advocate for the directive, you will understand that, of course, it’s all about the money. For one, the EU sees a huge opportunity of holding YouTube (read: Google) and other web giants financially accountable. And as we all know, YouTube was built on a lot of copyright infringement. On the other hand, the directive is a desperate attempt to save the old European media groups from extinction. No wonder they passionately write in favor of the directive and mock the European youth on the streets demonstrating to #SaveYourInternet. This is old media versus “new media”. It’s a battle for power and money. But that's not the whole story.
If you want to understand how this directive, which also prescribes upload filters that check every piece of user-generated content for copyright infringements, will change the Web, I highly recommend one of the latest episodes of Seth Godin’s podcast Akimbo. In “Interoperability”, Seth brilliantly explains how monopolization and locking people into closed systems that prevent interoperability will lead to independent people being unable to get their product to market, regardless of how innovative they are. And that’s exactly the greatest danger of the EU copyright directive. Instead of guaranteeing the compensation of independent artists, upload filters would in fact not weaken the position of internet giants like Google, but instead strengthen, even cement it. When asked how upload filters could be realized, Axel Voss responds that “of course, this would require some kind of technology“ and he refers to Google’s ability to identify memes on the image search results page. Yes, Google is able to identify memes and other types of content quite well – and YouTube already does quite a good job of identifying copyrighted material. But what about small communities, small companies, non-profits, and start-ups? Having to implement upload filters and the machine learning technology necessary to make those filters efficient significantly raises the barrier of entry for competitors. Moreover, being sued can be existence-threatening for smaller companies – not for Google, though.
So in reality, the new copyright directive isn’t so much about the compensation of artists and fighting web content monopolies. The established players are closing down the system in a way that will make it hard for new businesses to come up with innovative ideas and challenge the status quo. The large media and internet companies will control technology, access, and who is allowed to participate for years to come. They are creating a walled garden.
This is why we should fight against the copyright directive in its current form.