The European Union’s reform of copyright rules to fit the digital age - which would obligate platforms such as Google and Facebook to pay for content driving traffic to their sites - moved towards completion following a crucial European Parliament vote in favour of the new legislation late on Wednesday.
The reform of the EU Copyright Directive, created in 2001, has been rumbling on since 2014. It has pitted content creators across all disciplines, and the bodies representing them, against the big digital platforms and other organisations which exploit artists’ rights digitally.
The outdated copyright rules have left many content creators – such as filmmakers, screenwriters, musicians, composers and journalists - feeling exploited as global platforms generate profit on the back of their work without any obligation to pay.
The directive also tackles the issue of content creators being cut out of digital revenues due to unfair contracts drawn-up early on in a project’s genesis or release.
European Parliament’s revised final position and vote
The European Parliament adopted a revised position on the proposed reforms on Wednesday (February 13) – adding safeguards to protect small tech firms and freedom of expression. There were 438 votes in favour to 226 votes against and 39 abstentions during a session running late into the evening.
It said its changes to the EU Commission’s original proposal were aimed at ensuring artists, notably musicians, performers and script authors, as well as news publishers and journalists, were paid for their work when it is used by sharing platforms such as YouTube or Facebook, and news aggregators such as Google News.
A key aspect of the Parliament’s final position for professionals working in the TV and film sectors was the retention of the article -14 in chapter 3 of the directive, which acknowledges the contribution of authors and performers in the value chain.
The European Parliament said its amendments would strengthen the negotiating rights of authors and performers, by enabling them to “claim” additional remuneration from the party exploiting their rights when the remuneration originally agreed is “disproportionately” low compared to the benefits derived.
The text also stated these benefits should include “indirect revenues”. The Parliament also agreed artists and performers should have the power to revoke or terminate the exclusivity of an exploitation licence for their work if the party holding the exploitation rights is deemed not to be exercising this right.
Other key aspects of the Parliament’s final position included a toughening of the Commission’s proposed plans to make online platforms and aggregators liable for copyright infringements, including for so-called “snippets” where only a small part of a new publisher’s text is displayed. These measures are of great interest to European news organisations and media professionals.
In response to fears the directive could discourage start-ups and innovation, the Parliament agreed small and micro platforms should be excluded from the directive’s rules.
Critics of the reforms have also suggested the new directive will dampen freedom on the web and potentially harm freedom of expression.
In a bid to counter these fears, the Parliament agreed the sharing of the hyperlinks of stories together with individual words to describe them would be free of copyright constraints. Non-profit, open source platforms such as Wikipedia would also be free of copyright constraints.
This provisional agreement will now be submitted to the Council of the European Union and if endorsed, will then be adopted by both the Council and the Parliament.
Impact on the digital giants
Under the Parliament’s final position, Google, Facebook and other big digital platforms would have to enter into licensing agreements with content rights-holders to use their work online.
They would also have to monitor the content being uploaded onto their sites and prevent copyright infringements by third parties posting on their platforms.
The digital platforms led by Google have been lobbying hard behind the scenes and publicly on the social networks against the proposed new directive. Google, which has said it is considering removing Google News from its platforms available in Europe, has yet to respond to Wednesday’s vote.
German MEP and rapporteur Axel Voss, who has been in charge of piloting the reform through the European Parliament, expressed satisfaction at the vote.
“I am very glad that despite the very strong lobbying campaign by the internet giants, there is now a majority in the full house backing the need to protect the principle of fair pay for European creatives,” he said.
“I am convinced that once the dust has settled, the internet will be as free as it is today, creators and journalists will be earning a fairer share of the revenues generated by their works, and we will be wondering what all the fuss was about.”
Reactions from the film and TV industries
A number of European bodies representing directors and writers welcomed the outcome of the vote and urged EU’s institutions to press on with its adoption and implementation. 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), described it as a real step forward for European “authors”.
The said the reforms would enable improve the bargaining position and remuneration of “authors” across Europe.
They highlighted the importance of the new Article -14, saying it established “a much-needed principle of fair and proportionate remuneration for authors and performers deriving from the exploitation of their works, including online”.
Fera chief executive Pauline Durand-Vialle called on the EU to adopt the reformed directive “in a timely manner”.
David Kavanagh, FSE executive officer, echoed her sentiments: “Europe’s authors are at the origin of our culture. Their difficult situation, which has been central to the European debate on copyright reform, can be significantly improved if the proposed Directive is enacted.”
Cécile Despringre, SAA executive director, said her organisation alongside bodies like FERA and FSE would work hard to ensure the directive was implemented at a national level across Europe once it was adopted.