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EU and Copyright : Anatomy of a Political Hacking

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Beim Ringen um ein neues Urheberrecht wird Europa von Bot-Netzwerken angegriffen. Bild: dpa

September, 12th, the European Parliament will vote on a new policy regarding copyright law. MEPs are being bombarded with emails and phone calls – supposedly from worried constituents. A closer look paints a very different picture.

          The New Testament attributes a myriad of miracles to Jesus Christ. One of them is the wondrous feeding of the multitudes, in which Jesus takes a small amount of bread and fish and multiplies it so that thousands of people are fed by it. A similarly miraculous multiplication took place in the debate on the EU Copyright Directive at the end of last June. Only it wasn’t bread or fish that was multiplied, but protest. Or rather, something meant to look like protest.

          In September of 2016, EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger proposed a policy on copyright law in the Digital Single Market. Oettinger’s tenure as Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society ended soon after, but as time passed, bureaucracy took its course until it was time for the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs to vote on the proposal.

          In the run-up to the vote, one could observe what’s come to be known in German policy-making as Struck’s Law, named for the former SPD politician Peter Struck: the rule that no law emerges from the parliament the way it enters it. Many changes and additions were made, which the appointed rapporteur, Axel Voss (CDU/EVP), was allowed to negotiate.

          Very early in the process, the only MEP from the Pirate Party, Julia Reda, began to fight the propositions. For her campaign, she made very strong use of distortion and simplification. The word „link tax“ (Linksteuer), by way of which Reda wanted to stop Article 11 of the policy, may be catchy, but there is something unwittingly comical to the earnest suggestion that there is a tax, collected by the tax office, on using links to online pieces of writing.

          (See the German version of the essay.)

          The polemical buzzword „upload filter“, to oppose Article 13 of the policy, wasn’t much better. Upload filters are not, and were never, part of the proposal, but the word works well in fueling fears. Indeed, Julia Reda managed to convince some of her supporters that if the policy on copyright law is passed, everything on the internet will be filtered, and memes – yes, those beloved memes – will be forbidden altogether.

          The fact that the policy says something completely different was of no more than marginal interest. According to the actual proposal, web platforms – and only web platforms – would have been obliged to enter into license agreements with the individual right owners of user-uploaded content or the copyright collectives by which the content is maintained.

          In this scenario, it’s the platforms who are responsible for license payments; users have nothing to do with it. It would simply have meant a duty for the platforms to be transparent in order to comprehensively account for the licensing and to correctly forward the payments to the respective right owners. If a platform didn’t want to enter such a license agreement, the EU policy would at least hold that platform responsible to keep its own website clean. How it achieves that is up to the platform itself, as long as it prevents copyright infringements.

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