Thursday

17th Jan 2019

MEPs side with Fry over McCartney on copyright

  • Lyric from the Beatles 1964 hit 'Can't Buy Me Love'. The EU copyright directive dispute is also about money: who will receive it for creating content? (Photo: Joshua Hilgart-Roy)

Every year, the European Parliament grants a mandate to dozens of its MEPs to negotiate in behind-closed-doors talks called 'trilogues' to thrash out the details of new EU laws.

Normally, this does not gather too much attention.

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  • Article 13 'threatens EU creators, leaving us vulnerable to censorship in copyright's name', said comedian Stephen Fry (Photo: IAB UK)

The past weeks however saw a flurry of tweets and open letters from celebrities calling on MEPs to either support or reject such a trilogue mandate for a new bill on copyright.

On Thursday (5 July), the first battle ended with a vote by the parliament plenary rejecting the mandate. But the war is far from over.

The aim of the EU directive, which would replace one from 2001, is to modernise copyright in the digital age. Lawmakers are looking for a balance between making sure that creators are being properly paid while not stifling free speech or digital innovation.

Much of the debate revolved around the most contentious article of the bill, article 13, which aims to give fair remuneration to creators vis-a-vis internet platforms.

Two of the internet's founding fathers, Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, signed a letter which said the bill posed "an imminent threat" to the future of the internet, saying they agreed with the aim - a fair distribution of revenues from the online use of copyright works - but that the means were wrong.

"By requiring internet platforms to perform automatic filtering all of the content that their users upload, article 13 takes 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," they wrote.

Actor-comedian-writer Stephen Fry was also worried about article 13, which he said "threatens EU creators, leaving us vulnerable to censorship in copyright's name".

By contrast, musician Paul McCartney voiced his support for the legal text, in an open letter to MEPs.

"The proposed copyright directive and its article 13 would address the value gap and help assure a sustainable future for the music ecosystem and its creators, fans and digital music services alike," said McCartney.

The Independent Music Companies Association, supportive of article 13, said there was "a massive disinformation campaign going on" and spoke of "scaremongering".

"There is no "censorship machine", "upload filter", or "robocopyright". These terms are being used by anti-copyright and pro-tech campaigners to try to hold onto the old world and avoid sharing revenues properly," the group said.

'End of exploitation'

The whole debate is about what should be parliament's version of the bill, proposed by the European Commission in September 2016.

Centre-right German MEP Alex Voss had drafted a text which was approved last month by a 14-9 majority in the parliament's legal affairs committee.

On Thursday (5 July) Voss pleaded with MEPs to give him a mandate to negotiate with national governments and the European Commission over the final text of the directive – on the basis of the committee-approved text.

"What is it that we are talking about? It is the end of exploitation of European artists on the internet," said Voss.

"We are talking about the major US platforms like Google and Facebook that have been making huge profits at the cost of European creatives. We need to prevent that and it is inexplicable how some people want to support this internet capitalism," the German MEP added.

Just after midday on Thursday though, a majority of MEPs sided with Cerf, Berners-Lee, and Fry, rather than with McCartney and Voss.

They refused to give Voss a negotiating mandate.

Of the 627 MEPs that voted, 278 supported Voss, while 318 voted against. 31 abstained.

Bring on more lobbyists

Thursday's decision opens up the possibility for MEPs to introduce amendments to the parliament's text.

This also means that the race is on for lobbyists to convince MEPs that are not necessarily experts on copyright or how the internet works. Copyright is a controversial topic with vested interests new and old.

Immediately after the vote, interest groups started flooding mailboxes with press statements.

These emails also give some indication of how heated the debate has become and how entrenched are the positions.

Four lobby groups representing magazines, newspapers, and publishers said that MEPs "voted to obstruct" the copyright reform, "succumbing to an intense lobby of manipulative anti-copyright campaigners, US internet giants and vested interests who benefit from stealing and monetising publishers' valuable content".

September

The issue will return on the plenary agenda in September.

The full chamber will then be able to debate the bill, before its rapporteur Voss is sent to negotiate with the Council of the EU – which represents national governments – and the European Commission.

The negotiators will have to find a compromise between the commission's original text, the to-be-determined parliament text, and the council's text, which was agreed last May.

It will be the outcome of these so-called trilogue talks which will determine who will benefit from the 'directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on copyright in the Digital Single Market'.

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