Article 13: Europe's hotly debated revamp of copyright law, explained

The EU's proposed European Copyright Directive is being called a war on memes. Here's why.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
6 min read
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First they came for the privacy violations, then they came for the memes.

The European Union is trying to pass a hotly debated law on copyright. The European Copyright Directive has been years in the making, and on Tuesday, March 26, the European Parliament is due to vote on the final version of it.

Companies including Google, along with free speech advocates and prominent figures within the EU, have opposed parts of the draft legislation. The contentious nature of the legislation saw it morph through multiple iterations before the different EU institutions agreed on a version after three days of talks in France.

On June 20, 2018, the European Parliament's legal affairs committee voted to approve the draft legislation , but then a couple of weeks later, on July 5, the Parliament as a whole rejected the measure. That was hardly the end of the matter, and the individual EU institutions followed up with their own input.

Those votes happened just weeks after Europe's last big piece of internet-related legislation -- the General Data Privacy Regulation ( GDPR ) -- kicked in.

Both the Copyright Directive and GDPR could dramatically affect and change things about the internet as we know it. But they also differ significantly, not just in scope, but also in how they're viewed and received by the world beyond Brussels.

GDPR has forced internet companies to scramble to fall in line with the new policy, but the privacy protections it promises internet users mean it's generally thought of as a consumer-friendly effort. Some hail it as evidence that the EU is leading the way when it comes to regulating the internet.

The pending Copyright Directive, however, is meeting with the opposite reaction.

What is the European Copyright Directive and why are people against it?

The EU Copyright Directive -- or to give its full name, the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market -- is Europe's attempt to harmonize copyright laws across all member states.

The last EU-wide copyright law was put in place in 2001, when the internet was a dramatically different place to how it is today. It's designed to update the law and make it more relevant to the internet we know and love now, as well as to anticipate change down the line. The legislation, however, is vague -- one of the criticisms of it -- in terms of what actually needs to change and how it'll be upheld.

But there are two sections in particular that have drawn criticism for being overly harsh: Article 13, and to a lesser extent, Article 11. The impact, critics say, could mean a substantially more closed internet of the future.

Who's in favor of the directive?

Alex Voss, rapporteur of the European Parliament for the copyright directive, for one. He suggested the law and believes its criticisms are highly exaggerated.

Many members of the European Parliament also support the overhaul of EU copyright law. How many exactly will be determined when it's put to a vote.

Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda suggested alternatives to both Article 11 and Article 13, saying they would "fairly balance the interests of different groups without compromising on fundamental rights."

What's Article 13?

Article 13 is the part of the directive that dictates how copyrighted content -- including TV shows, films, videos and pictures -- is shared on the internet. It dictates that anyone sharing copyrighted content must get permission from rights owners, or at least have made the best possible effort to get permission, before doing so.

It'd force all online platforms to police and prevent the uploading of copyrighted content, or make people seek the correct licenses to post that content. For the most part this would mean filters that check content as it's uploaded would be mandatory for platforms including Facebook , Instagram, GitHub, Reddit and Tumblr, but also many much smaller platforms.

YouTube already uses such a system -- called Content ID -- to protect copyright infringement, but the technology to do this is extremely expensive and has taken over 11 years to build and refine.

Who has a problem with it and why?

The concerns about Article 13 are wide-ranging, including unease about the cost of compliance for smaller companies, and out-and-out censorship of the internet.

In a letter addressed to the president of the EP, Antonio Tajani, around 70 internet luminaries, including Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, expressed their concern that the provision could cause "substantial harm" to the internet.

"Article 13 takes an unprecedented step towards 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," they said.

An organized campaign against Article 13 warns that it'd affect everything from memes to code, remixes to livestreaming. Almost 400,000 people have so far signed a Change.org petition against the provision.

The Max Planck Institute, a nonprofit group, notes that Article 13 could threaten freedom of expression and information as enshrined in the European Charter of Human Rights.

What's Article 11?

A second part of the draft legislation, Article 11, is also raising eyebrows. This section stipulates that companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft may have to pay publishers for showing snippets of news articles.

Who has a problem with it and why?

The objections to Article 11 are less vocal, but they're out there nonetheless. It's unclear what exactly would have to be licensed (snippets? headlines? links themselves?) so the jury is out on how much of an impact it might have.

"Platforms unable or unwilling to pay licensing fees would need to shut down or disallow users from sharing links with snippets," said Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda.

There are fears it could outlaw news aggregators as we know them or even prevent any sites other than giants like Google, which could afford a license, from linking to articles at all.

How will this affect Facebook and other social media companies?

The law would force social media platforms to take more direct responsibility for policing uploaded content. Big tech companies will likely put their own, costly solutions in place for doing this. Smaller companies would likely use a more centralized platform.

It'd also prevent social platforms from showing any kind of "snippet" of news stories, making it ultimately harder to share and link to content.

How will this affect me, an EU resident?

Everything you upload onto the internet will be checked for copyright beforehand, so this could mean no more making memes or edits for your favorite fan Tumblr, among many other things.

It could also mean the end of some of your favorite news aggregation tools and apps. When you click on a link, you may have little clue ahead of time what lies beyond.

These are just some of the possibilities, but because of how vague the law is, it's hard to see how it might be upheld when the time comes.

How will this affect me, a non-EU resident?

Each territory is governed by its own copyright laws, so unless the directive causes the big internet companies to make some huge, fundamental changes, you might not be directly affected.

The internet may not have as much content generated from within Europe, however, so if you're a fan of British humor or Europe's take on popular memes, your experience of being online may be the poorer for it.

Will the directive definitely pass into law?

It's too early to say whether the Copyright Directive will pass. The July 5 vote by the EU Parliament was a narrow one: 318 against, 278 in favor, with 31 abstentions.

Now that the EU has agreed on a final text for the directive, the European Parliament will vote on the legislation. If it passes, it'll come into force in each EU country over the next two years.

Originally published June 22, 2018.
Update July 5, 2018:  Added information about the vote in the European Parliament.
Update Feb. 15, 2019: Added information about the upcoming vote in the European Parliament.
Update March 25, 2019: Added further information about the upcoming vote.