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Article 13: Will it hinder or promote artistic expression?

March 27, 2019

After a sweeping new copyright law passed in the European Parliament on Tuesday, artists, musicians and creators are both cheering and crying foul. Will Article 13 lead to censorship or give artists more revenue?

Berlin Proteste gegen EU-Urheberrechtsreform
Image: Reuters/H. Hanschke

When the European Commission proposed in 2016 extensive internet copyright law reforms that would "close the value gap" for content creators who are paid very little on such platforms as YouTube, Europe's Independent Music Companies Association (IMPALA) was right behind the move.

"We're delighted," IMPALA chairman Mark Kitcatt, who also runs the Madrid-based Everlasting Records label, told DW after the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market was passed by the European Parliament on Tuesday. "Every Spanish independent is behind it. Nearly every artist I've ever spoken to supports this directive and specifically Article 13. It's crucial to us."

Article 13 (Article 17 in the new law) legislates that content uploaded to platforms such as YouTube Facebook must have a copyright license so that royalties can be paid. But it controversially leaves the way open for the use of an automated "upload filter"  that may block and effectively censor a lot of content.

"Article 13 as written threatens to shut down the ability of millions of people — from creators like you to everyday users — to upload content to platforms like YouTube," YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki predictably wrote last October. She added that "European creators, businesses, artists and everyone they employ," will lose a vital showcase for their work as a result.

Kitcatt disagrees. He says that Article 13 will ensure that YouTube — which he notes has 10 to 15 times the reach of the Spotify music streaming service but pays less than one-tenth of the royalties — will finally pay its fair share to independent musicians across Europe.

"If the value of your work is destroyed by the biggest music distributor in the world, which is what YouTube is, it's pretty obvious that you cannot finance your recordings," Kitcatt said.

German Commissioner for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters also welcomed the EU copyright reforms, saying "cultural and journalistic diversity" will be enhanced both in terms of better "digital access" and  "the fact that professional creative work will also be paid." 

Article 13 backlash

The #SaveYourInternet campaign that saw tens of thousands march across Germany on the weekend in opposition to the copyright directive is a broad church of mega online platforms like Google-owned YouTube and internet freedom advocates who believe the new copyright law represents an existential threat to free expression.

"It sets a very bad precedent for the European Union," Diego Naranjo of European Digital Rights (EDRi), an association of civil and human rights organisations from across Europe committed to defending "rights and freedoms in the digital environment," told DW from Brussels.

Naranjo argues that the new legislation exploits the "excuse of copyright" to sanction upload filters that "will be used for many other reasons in the future." The end result? Curtailment of freedom of speech and an open, creative internet by big tech giants whose filters will curate the web in the same way that media conglomerates control TV broadcasting.  

Unlike outspoken music industry advocates of Article 13 like Debbie Harry of band Blondie, Naranjo does not agree that small independent artists and creators will necessarily receive more royalties as a result of the new law.

While EDRi has pushed strongly for fair remuneration for artists, Naranjo says Article 13 cannot solve this deeper problem. "Only those who can afford the licenses, or only those who can negotiate with the big tech companies will be able to to share their content."

Debbie Harry (Blondie)
Blondie singer Debbie Harry is among the musicians demanding fair remuneration from YouTubeImage: picture-alliance

"The crumbs that they receive from the collecting societies, from the big music companies, even in the best-case scenarios, is minimal," he added. "So most musicians make more money by playing live; most writers make more money by doing journalism or doing other things. That's a bigger problem that we can't solve with the copyright directive."   

Read moreEU copyright bill: Protests across Europe highlight rifts over reform plans

The mega platforms that do currently pay some royalties to small artists will again negotiate poorly paid licensing deals under the new law — but this time at the expense of an open internet, Naranjo believes.  

A number of artists took to Twitter in the wake of Tuesday's copyright vote to voice concern that the work of little-known creators will be blocked by an indiscriminate upload filter.

For instance, one Twitter user, who describes himself as "a small, trans #ArtistOnTwitter," encouraged more sharing of content after Article 13 passed.


The death of memes?

But Article 13 advocates like Kitcatt fear the debate has been infected with a lot of "alarmist and hyperbolic" misinformation.

IMPALA, which is dedicated to "leveling the playing field for independent music companies and their artists across Europe," has especially pushed back against the narrative that memes, gifs and online reviews that utilize copyrighted content will soon be extinct. 

This kind of compromise has satisfied many in the music industry that the copyright directive has been negotiated to protect and nurture artists, not hinder them. 

"Copyrighting is a system that empowers artistic expression," Andy Zammit, a Berlin-based musician who plays with the likes of Gemma Ray and founded Bronze Rat Records in London in 2006, told DW. "Rights are exactly that, rights. YouTube and Google have until now just fed off a workaround and become incredibly wealthy. It's about time this happened." 

Read moreGerman band Kraftwerk gets boost on 'sampling' copyright case

While storied bands like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion are on Bronze Rat Records, generating revenue for the label has nevertheless been a struggle in the YouTube age. "It's not about 'freedom,' as some people argue, but rather about getting music for 'free'," Zammit said. "The redistribution of revenue generated should be fair."   

But Zammit also acknowledges that the directive will need a lot of work to put into practice, and a lot of willingness "on the side of Google and YouTube."

Naranjo, meanwhile, doubts their commitment. "These big tech companies are going to take advantage of them [artists] and pay them the smallest amount of money possible."

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.