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New EU law could outlaw memes on the internet

Sheetal Sukhija - Monday 11th June, 2018

BRUSSELS, Belgium - With the European Parliament set to vote on the new Copyright Directive later this month, digital rights groups are now petitioning against the proposed law.

According to campaigners, the new European copyright laws could outlaw memes on the internet.

The new law is reportedly meant to protect rights-holders from copyright infringement on the web.

However, critics have argued that the law will destroy the hugely popular internet culture of sharing and modifying recognisable images, often referred to as "memes" on social media.

Memes typically include pictures or scenes featured in films and TV series, with or without a phrase and may constitute a breach under the new law.

Campaigners have warned that the law will require "all content uploaded to the internet to be monitored and potentially deleted if a likeness to existing copyright is protected.”

Rights groups are specifically campaigning against the Article 13, a provision of the directive that warns that online platforms would be economically damaged if they were forced to comply with its expensive obligations.

Groups against the implementation of the law have argued that the new law would "destroy the internet as we know it,” adding that it would "allow big companies to control what we see and do online.”

Campaigners have pointed out that “the stringent copyright protections of Article 13 would damage the sharing of parody content and memes” which, while themselves being original and creative works, are often developed from other people's original content.

As part of their protest against the specific provision, academics from intellectual property research centres in Europe addressed an open letter regarding the copyright directive.

However, the European Commission has outrightly rejected the allegations.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker first introduced the legislative drive in 2016.

At the time, Juncker said he wanted "journalists, publishers and authors to be paid fairly for their work.”

He explained that the copyright protections would apply to that work "whether it is made in studios or living rooms, whether it is disseminated offline or online, whether it is published via a copying machine or commercially hyperlinked on the web."

Responding to the argument presented by campaigners, a European Commission spokesperson was quoted as saying, "The idea behind our copyright proposals is that people should be able to make a living from their creative ideas. The proposals to modernise EU copyright provisions will not harm freedom of expression on the internet. They take into account technological developments that have already been introduced by some of the major players and which help in two ways.

Critics have also argued that the revamped copyright legislation will not just ban memes but also Wikipedia citation and other staples of the online world.

According to San Francisco-based digital rights organisation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the proposal is “unworkable and dangerous.” 

The EFF citied Wikipedia as an example of how the law could have a negative impact and said that the online encyclopedia could be forced to stop submissions of information and images.

Further, the organization added that if the law was applied in its strictest sense, videos of protests with music in the background, or even online adverts displaying the cover of a book, could be pulled offline. 

It warned in a statement, “The collateral damage they [the EU] will impose on every realm of public life can’t be overstated. The internet, after all, is inextricably bound up in the daily lives of hundreds of millions of Europeans and an entire constellation of sites and services will be adversely affected by Article 13.”

Meanwhile, Campaign group Save Your Internet has set up a website to lobby members of the European Parliament.

The group explained, “Article 13 would restrict the ability of internet users to consume content. The days of communicating through gifs and memes, listening to your favourite remixes online might be coming to an end.”

The European Parliament is set to vote on the proposed Copyright Directive on June 20.

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