European Parliament Approves Controversial Copyright Law

European Parliament Building in Brussels

The European Union Copyright Directive, which passed despite widespread public opposition, will make online companies responsible for copyright infringement on their sites.

The European Parliament on Tuesday approved a controversial new law that could fundamentally change the way EU citizens, content creators and online platforms use the Internet.

The European Union copyright directive will overhaul copyright law in Europe, updating legislation for the Internet age. The legislation —some five years in the making — passed Tuesday with a vote of 348 votes for and 274 against at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

There was huge opposition to the directive, both from digital media giants like Facebook and YouTube, who fear the new law will undermine their business model, and from ordinary users, who protested in the hundreds of thousands across Europe this past week. But associations representing content creators — writers, directors, actors and musicians — as well as many large traditional media companies, largely supported the legislation, saying it will provide fair compensation for copyright holders and help fight online piracy.

“The European Union has laid the foundation for a better and fairer digital environment  — one in which  creators will be in a stronger position to negotiate fair license fees when their works are used by big online platforms,” said Gadi Oron, director-general of CISAC, a royalty collection society, which represents some 4 million creators worldwide. "This is a hugely important achievement not just for Europe, but for the millions of creators which CISAC represents across the world. We are grateful to all those in the European institutions who have tirelessly worked on this directive and hope that it will lead the way for countries outside the EU to follow."

In a joint statement, the Federation of European Film Directors (FERA), the Federation of Screenwriters in Europe (FSE) and the Society of Audiovisual Authors (SAA) welcomed the vote, calling it “a long-fought battle won.”

"This important first step towards a more equitable and efficient model for the remuneration of authors will have a very positive impact on Europe’s film and television culture and industry,” said FSE executive officer David Kavanagh. "We look forward to working with colleagues to bring the good intentions of the European institutions to fruition and express our gratitude to all who have worked for this result."

But Julia Reda, a German member of the European Parliament and one of the most outspoken opponents of the legislation, called Thursday's vote a "dark day for Internet freedom." In a tweet, Reda said the European Parliament “has rubber-stamped copyright reform” ignoring public opposition to the law.

Two of the most contentious aspects of the new legislation are article 11, which requires online sites to pay for media content driving users to their platforms — the so-called link tax — and article 13, which makes the tech platforms liable for copyright infringements on their sites. Critics say article 13 — the focus on much of public protests against the legislation — will result in upload filters (automatic content-blocking software) and increase online censorship. Article 11 has been attacked for supposedly favoring established media companies and making it harder for independent or nonprofit sites to compete with deep-pocketed rivals.

Largely overlooked in the public debate are provisions in the legislation that will force media companies to be more transparent in reporting, and sharing, revenue with content creators. Article 14 requires that companies provide — a least once a year — a full account of the revenue generated from copyright-protected material and the renumeration due to creators. Article 15 gives creators the right to claim “additional, appropriate and fair remuneration” if their work generates more revenue than expected, so they are not cut out of the profits by contracts based on lower projections.

The legislation now has to be approved by the European council, which will vote in April.  Individual countries have two years to adopt the directive and there is considerably flexibility in how the law will be implemented in different EU countries. This local focus is where lobbyists, activists and business interests will now focus their efforts, as they try to get the most advantageous interpretation of the EU directive.

Forces on both sides of the debate have been fighting furiously over this law for five years but the real work has only just begun.