A new EU law could change the online world forever by effectively banning memes, remixes and other content which incorporate copyrighted material.
The rules are contained in Article 13 of the Copyright Directive and are controversial because they demand platforms ‘take measures to ensure the functioning of agreements concluded with rights-holders for the use of their works’, meaning that large-scale censorship would be the only way of enforcing the law.
Most popular memes on the internet are based on stock footage, pictures or image macros whose rights have never been released to the public, and whose owner can easily claim they don't want those images shared publicly or to turned into memes.
Most of the internet’s famous memes would be affected and it would be illegal to ‘Rick Roll’, for instance, because it involves sending a clip from Rick Astley’s copyrighted pop song.
You might think this law would be impossible to police, but in fact, it could be relatively easy. All platforms like Facebook or YouTube need to do is automatically scan all uploaded content to see if it breaks copyright law or contains banned hate speech – and then pull it down.
In fact one of the most controversial provisions, article 13, would require platforms, such as Google and Microsoft, to install filters to automatically scan and delete any copyrighted material.
This could lead to the creation a ‘computer says no’ world where people whose opinions contravene the corporate giants will find it very difficult to publish online.
Examples of memes that could be removed under the new law.
Jim Killock, executive director of the UK’s Open Rights Group, told the BBC: ‘Article 13 will create a "Robo-copyright’ regime, where machines zap anything they identify as breaking copyright rules, despite legal bans on laws that require ‘general monitoring’ of users to protect their privacy. Unfortunately, while machines can spot duplicate uploads of Beyonce songs, they can’t spot parodies, understand memes that use copyright images, or make any kind of cultural judgement about what creative people are doing. We see this all too often on YouTube already. Add to that, the EU wants to apply the Robocop approach to extremism, hate speech, and anything else they think can get away with, once they put it in place for copyright. This would be disastrous."
A campaign against Article 13 - Copyright 4 Creativity - said that the proposals could "destroy the internet as we know it. Should Article 13 of the Copyright Directive be adopted, it will impose widespread censorship of all the content you share online."
Essentially, the campaigners are arguing 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.
The allegations have been robustly rejected by the European Commission.
Introducing the legislative drive in 2016, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he wanted "journalists, publishers and authors to be paid fairly for their work".
The European Commission says 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."
It has been opposed by a whole host of internet experts, many of them involved with the creation of the central technologies and services of the internet.
An open letter published last week was signed by more than 70 experts, including web creator Tim Berners-Lee, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales and internet pioneer Vint Cerf, urging the EU to drop this law which will have drastic and negative consequences regarding the internet as we know it.
The letter states that the new law will be “an unprecedented step towards the transformation of the internet from an open platform for sharing and innovation, into a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users”.
A vote on the new laws takes places later this month and activists are warning that the results could change the web forever by opening a backdoor for large corporations, governments and politcal bodies like the EU to start censoring online material that they don't like or approve by using the justification that they're "breaking copyright laws".