This photo illustration taken on March 22, 2018 shows apps for Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and other social networks on a smartphone in Chennai. / AFP PHOTO / ARUN SANKAR (Photo credit should read ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Fight has set the likes of Google and Twittter against musicians, artists, and news publishers that use their services © AFP

EU negotiators have agreed a draft overhaul of European copyright rules, ending a fierce two-year lobbying battle between tech giants and the creative industries.

After three consecutive days of closed door talks in Strasbourg, EU officials, MEPs and diplomats from member states, struck a deal to revamp copyright rules to force platforms like YouTube to take down user-generated content that is in breach of intellectual property law. 

Wednesday’s agreement, which was concluded after 9pm following 12 hours of negotiations, ends a fight that has set the likes of Google News, YouTube and Twitter against musicians, artists, and news publishers who use their services. A majority of MEPs must now vote in favour of the directive for it to come into force. EU governments will also have to endorse the text.

“Europeans will finally have modern copyright rules fit for the digital age with real benefits for everyone: guaranteed rights for users, fair remuneration for creators, clarity of rules for platforms,” said Andrus Ansip, the EU’s commissioner for digital policy. 

The European Commission first proposed a revolution in copyright laws to give rights-holders — like artists, musicians and publishers — better bargaining power to demand payment from free internet services like platforms and search engines. 

Under the draft agreement, Google’s news service would be required to take out licenses with publishers like newspapers to show articles on its news feed. The search engine has warned its business model in Europe will be threatened by the licensing rules and will restrict people’s ability to know what they are clicking on. Opponents have dubbed it a “link tax”.

EU negotiators agreed to drop a requirement for “very short” snippets of text to be protected by the rules, according to Axel Voss, a German MEP in charge of agreeing the parliament’s position. Authors and journalists would also be able to gain a share of license revenues.

“The deal aims at enhancing rights holders’ chances, notably musicians, performers and script authors, as well as news publishers, to negotiate better remuneration deals for the use of their works featured on internet platforms”, said a statement from the European Parliament.

Officials said the final-stage negotiations had stumbled over whether memes would be covered by the rules. Internet freedom campaigners have argued the directive would make it illegal to share these fast-spreading images and video clips and force platforms to take down parody content. Mr Voss said the final agreement would allow users to freely share memes, GIFs and other parody material if it was for non-commercial purposes.

One of the most controversial elements of the overhaul — known as Article 13 — is designed to make platforms more responsible for taking down user-generated content that breaks copyright law. YouTube has warned this means millions of videos will become unavailable in Europe.

Julia Reda, an MEP from Pirate Party Germany, said the agreement was a blow for internet freedom and urged MEPs to reject the deal in a vote that is likely to come in late March. “Upload filters do not work, as algorithms simply cannot tell the difference between copyright infringements and legal parody,” said Ms Reda. 

“Requiring platforms to use upload filters would not just lead to more frequent blocking of legal uploads, it would also make life difficult for smaller platforms that cannot afford filtering software,” she said. 

But Mr Voss said opponents who have dubbed the requirements as “the end of the internet” were talking “total nonsense”. “We have not said anything about filtering in the text. YouTube will still exist and the internet will still exist,” said the MEP. 

The European Group of Societies of Authors and Composers said the deal sent “a clear signal that large platforms dominating the online content market at the expense of creators must stop freeriding and comply with copyright rules”. 

A group of European publishers, including the European Newspaper Publishers’ Association and European Publishers Council, urged MEPs to back the agreement to “allow a fair-value exchange between those who produce and those who distribute for their own commercial gain, for the cycle to continue profitably and fairly”. 

The Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represents platforms like Google, said forcing platforms to make their “best efforts” to buy up licenses for copyrighted material would damage Europe’s tech sector. 

“We fear the law could harm online innovation, scale-ups, and restrict online freedoms in Europe,” said Christian Borggreen, vice-president of CCIA in Brussels.

The negotiations came close to collapse last month when EU governments clashed over whether copyright rules should apply to smaller platforms. A Franco-German compromise — backed by a majority of governments last week — will mean that any platform with revenues under €10m a year, fewer than 5m monthly users, that has been active for under three years, will be subject to less rigorous take-down requirements.

If approved, member states will have two years to introduce the new rules. 

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