A dangerous game

With EU copyright reforms coming to a head, Barney Dixon speaks to Raegan MacDonald to see how the landscape has changed in recent months

How have the copyright reform proposals changed since June?

The biggest development since June is likely a change in rapporteurs. Previously, Maltese Member of European Parliament (MEP) Therese Comodini Cachia was rapporteur.

She did an exemplary job of listening to all sides of the copyright debate, and her draft report reflected that spirit of compromise.

But, Comodini was elected to serve in the Maltese parliament, so her rapporteur post was handed off to her German colleague in the European People’s Party (EPP) group, Axel Voss.

Voss seems to be more decided on the issues of copyright, and is committed to implementing German-style ancillary copyright and other dangerous proposals.

How will the proposals affect the general public on a day-to-day basis?

The proposals, if signed into law, would impact all EU citizens who use the internet.

Article 13 seeks to make all open platforms liable for the actions of their users. What this means is that, YouTube, DeviantArt, SoundCloud, and others would need to aggressively monitor and filter anything and everything that users post. As a result, it would become far more difficult to create and share original content, and more difficult to find it, as well.

Article 11 proposes neighbouring rights, which are copyright rules for small snippets of online content like news headlines or article descriptions. This means anyone sharing a relevant snippet could be charged a licence fee—undercutting the small businesses, start-ups, and individuals who aggregate and share online content.

According to Mozilla, the proposals are “a sabotage of freedom and openness on the internet”. Why is this and how can they be altered to avoid this?

The aforementioned Article 13 would make it far more difficult to create, share, and consume content freely. Article 11 would create a closed internet where even the smallest blurbs of information are policed by confusing copyright rules. The free flow of information online that we’ve come to depend on—on Github, on Wikipedia, and more—would be chilled.

There are a number of decent amendments floating around in the European Parliament and Council that wouldn’t break the internet.
One such proposal was put forward by former rapporteur Comodini, regarding Article 11 and neighbouring rights. This would empower rightsholders to enforce their existing copyrights, which is a much more sensible approach—extending copyright to cover snippets is not grounded in any evidence whatsoever.

Another required alteration is that Article 13 requires significant changes to bring it back in line with EU law. We need to re-establish liability protections and prohibit a general monitoring obligation.

Fortunately, policymakers seem to finally be coming to the realisation that, no matter how you slice it, Article 13 is not compatible with EU law, including with fundamental rights such as freedom of expression. Even Germany has joined a chorus of member states who have asked legal clarification on this proposal.

What is Mozilla doing to help?

We are on the ground in Brussels, strategically engaging with policymakers. We’re also working alongside civil society organisations, libraries, tech companies, startups—everyone who wants to reform copyright for the digital age. We’re also rallying EU citizens via our changecopyright.org campaign. We’ve created a website and a call tool—available in six languages—that allow citizens to contact their MEPs and demand better reforms. In October, we’re convening European technologists and activists in London for the eighth annual Mozilla Festival.

How could the EU reforms affect global copyright laws? Are other countries likely to take notice and adjust?

The EU is a standard setter, so the stakes are high. Other countries are watching—we know this from the strong standards that have been set by previous landmark EU legislation such as net neutrality and data protection.

But, it cuts both ways: if the most dangerous proposals are adopted, the EU risks setting a terrible example, and consequently undermining digital opportunities not only in Europe, but around the world.

How do the reforms compare to other established copyright frameworks, such as the US model?

The EU framework is currently fragmented, particularly in the area of exceptions. Some exceptions, like quotation, parody, or panorama, are implemented differently in Germany than in Sweden or in Lithuania. This doesn’t make sense in the digital world.

Another issue is that there is no provision that would allow more flexibility to tinker, akin to Canada’s fair dealing, the US’s fair use, or similar provisions currently being discussed in Australia and Singapore.

The EU needs an exception for user-generated content. An open internet is strongest when people can build and improve on each others’ creations. We use Firefox as an example—it is open-source technology, and encourages anyone to use its code to build new products of their own, and even to make a profit with that new creation if they so choose.

We would like to see that spirit of openness and creativity reflected in the EU copyright framework.

Sadly, if upload filters become the norm in the EU, this will be useless, as the result will be fewer open platforms, less speech, and less innovation. So, we have two tasks as citizens and as people who care about creativity and expression: stop these dangerous proposals and add a future-proof element to the copyright reform that would create space to innovate and tinker.
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