EU finalises draft rules to update copyright law

Final deal is expected to be struck this week, after France and Germany resolved dispute over inclusion of small tech groups

Photo: EPA European Commissioner for Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip

The European Union's effort to rewrite two-decade old copyright rules and take into account online platforms such as Google's owned YouTube moved a step forward on Friday after the majority of Member States agreed on a common position for talks with lawmakers this week. This happened mostly because France and Germany managed to resolve in time a dispute over whether the reforms should apply to small technology companies, or not.

The agreement on the final draft rules now paves the way for the European Parliament, EU Commission, and the Council to get a final agreement on the draft directive before a 14 February deadline. Thus, MEPs were invited to participate in the so-called trilogue negotiations between the three EU institutions, which are expected to take place sometime this week, although no date has been publicly announced.

“Glad to see EU countries once again finding a common voice on copyright reform … I hope for a final agreement next week. Europeans deserve copyright rules fit for digital age: it is good for creators, platforms and for regular internet users,” EU Commission's Digital Chief Andrus Ansip said on Twitter on Friday, adding later that the deal could be reached this Tuesday or Wednesday.

As Europost reminds, the joint stance now comes after negotiations stalled last month due to countries' failed efforts to bridge their differences. Ambassadors representing the 28 EU Member Sates met on 18 January to approve the latest draft version of the controversial EU Copyright Directive. Instead, eleven countries voted against it – many citing concerns over Article 13, as well as the similarly contentious clause, Article 11 (dubbed the ‘link tax’ provision).

One of the focal points of disagreement was namely a France-Germany spat over whether smaller platforms would have to apply the take-down rules. This Friday, however, France, which has pushed for no carve-outs for small businesses, agreed to a version where only tech companies with fewer than 5m monthly users and annual turnover under €10m would not be forced to carry out the filtering. But EU lawmaker Julia Reda from the Pirate Party criticised the compromise and called on Europeans to pressure lawmakers to reject the deal.

"That French-German deal is actually more extreme than previous versions, requiring all platforms older than three years to automatically censor all their users’ uploads, and putting unreasonable burdens even on the newest companies," she said.

Another issue with the directive, however is still expected to be agreed upon. In accordance to the rules Google News would be expected to take out licences with news organisations in order to show snippets of information attached to news articles. Yet, MEPs and EU governments have not agreed on the size of the snippets and whether headlines or pictures will come under the copyright laws if a final deal is to be concluded next week.

The EU Copyright Directive was first presented in 2016 by Digital Commissioner Günther Oettinger, before he left his post to make way for Mariya Gabriel. In short, the proposed legislation seeks to prevent unfair business practices by app stores, search engines, e-commerce sites and hotel booking websites in a bid to ensure a level playing field between the tech companies and traditional businesses. It is also designed to help rebalance the relationship between internet platforms and creative industries by giving fairer pay to publishers and forcing tech companies to take down copyrighted material.

When the Commission first proposed the new EU Copyright Directive, however, it faced a rough ride in the Parliament’s plenary, which turned down the text initially adopted by the Legal Affairs Committee. Parliament eventually adopted its final stance in September, kicking off a series of inter-institutional negotiations with EU member states in the Council of Ministers.

Yet, the contentious copyright law is still sternly resisted by major US tech giants as well as online freedom activists and most lately the European journalists association, with some campaigners warning it could spell the end of internet freedom, diversity and affect overall user experience. The lobbying battle is mainly over two parts of the planned law.

The first is Article 13, which would make platforms like Google-owned YouTube legally liable if their users share copyrighted material, to prevent content producers being ripped off. Critics, including several Silicon Valley giants, argue that the change will lead in effect to blanket censorship of platforms that have become an online hub for creativity as well as the prime source of entertainment - at the expense of TV - for younger generations. In short, as Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of World Wide Web stated, such measure would transform the internet from an open platform into a tool for “automated surveillance and control”.

"Let's put it very bluntly, if the platforms have a liability to make sure that (copyrighted) content doesn't show up, then anything that could be perceived as a copyright infringement would be taken down," Siada El Ramly, director of EDiMA, a lobby group for the tech sector, also said.

Even more hotly disputed is Article 11, which aims to create a so-called "neighbouring right", meaning that newspapers, magazines and news agencies would have to be paid a fee when Google or other web services link to their stories. In short, if internet companies post “snippets” of news content – for example, the headline, picture and text bundles as Facebook feeds and Google News do now, they have to pay the source.

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