Europe’s copyright plan: Why was it so controversial?

*This article first appeared in Government Gazette* 

By Catherine Stihler

Labour MEP for Scotland

Vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO)


The digital revolution has created monumental challenges for copyright law.

Fast technological developments and market evolutions have produced radical changes in the way that copyright-protected works are created, produced and distributed.

Given the transformation, it is widely accepted across Europe that urgent reform is required.

As a result, we have the European Commission’s proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, designed to simplify licensing practices, ensure wider access to content for consumers and protect authors’ and

performers’ contracts and remuneration.

It was – and is – a laudable aim. Within the European Parliament, we are all united in our shared mission to protect artists and cultural diversity in Europe.

So why did copyright reform become so controversial?

In summary, the plan to protect copyright owners is so blunt and restrictive that it could have a detrimental effect on freedom of expression. Rather than finding the right balance for the new digital age, it has become a crackdown on consumer rights.

When the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, raises concerns then

we all have a duty to listen – not to mention the fact that nearly 1million Europeans have signed a petition demanding we ‘save the internet’.

In practical terms, under the proposals as they stand, anything which could be seen as a copyright breach risks being automatically deleted from websites such as YouTube, Google, Twitter or Facebook.

That could include memes because the uploader doesn’t own the original photo, karaoke videos because the uploader doesn’t own the original song, or online newspaper articles because the uploader doesn’t own the original piece.

The rules proposed in Article 13 would be enforced by often error-prone and hypersensitive algorithms, which are designed to ‘play it safe’ and remove anything that could pose a risk to the online platform.

A separate Article – Article 11 – would impact on news reporting, where there are particular concerns. In an era of ‘fake news’, where children are taught how to differentiate between conspiracy theories published on blogs and genuine news articles, we shouldn’t do anything which places restrictions on the professional media.

A large portion of news providers on the internet are financed by page impressions and the resulting advertising income, which is generated by people visiting their site via external links.

If an online platform is not willing to pay the licensing fees, those page views don’t happen.

When similar copyright rules were introduced in Spain, traffic to websites of small and medium sized news publishers fell by up to 30 per cent, impacting on local journalists, and Google News largely withdrew from the market. If that happens elsewhere in Europe, it could put journalism at further risk and allow the spread of ‘fake news’.

It could even mean that simply quoting text is declared a copyright infringement.

That is why I have consistently argued that the introduction of a ‘press publishers’ right’ under Article 11 – requiring online platforms to pay publishers a fee if they link to their news content – lacks sufficient justification. There are potentially more effective ways of promoting high-quality journalism and publishing via tax incentives, instead of adding an additional layer of copyright legislation.

Article 11 also risks placing restrictions on what can be included in academic research, which is why so many university experts are opposed to it.

More widely, Article 13 could have a major negative impact on the digital economy and the internet freedoms of consumers.

I firmly support the principle that creators and rights holders should receive a fair and balanced compensation for the exploitation of their works from online service providers. However, the stringent requirements outlined in this Article could act as a barrier to market entry for new and emerging businesses, while the use of filtering potentially harms

the interests of web users. There are many legitimate uses of copyright content that filtering

technologies are simply not advanced enough to accommodate.

In 2017, in my role as spokesperson on copyright for the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, I proposed a series of amendments for the Committee on Legal Affairs.

In our committee, we were able to reach a broad compromise that makes meaningful progress on the ‘value gap’, while at the same time safeguarding the rights of European internet users, SMEs and start-ups.

Unfortunately, in June, the Legal Affairs Committee did not take our position into account and voted to approve Article 13 and Article 11. In the Strasbourg plenary, however, MEPs voted to reject this mandate, allowing a broad, fact-based debate in September.

We owe it to the experts, stakeholders and citizens to give this directive the full debate necessary to achieve broad support. Quite simply, we must get this right.