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European Union Approves Sweeping Copyright Reform That Signals Big Changes Ahead for YouTube

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European Union 2018/EP
JURI committee meeting. Vote on Copyright in the Digital Single Market.

Proponents of tackling the so-called "value gap" call the reforms an "important step," while opponents see it as a "dark day for the open web."

User generated services like YouTube will be required to obtain licences and pay rights holders for hosting music and film content under controversial copyright reforms provisionally approved by the European Parliament.

Music industry bodies IMPALA, CISAC, PRS For Music and IFPI have all welcomed the changes, but opponents have called it a "dark day for the open web" and said the new laws will restrict freedoms online.

Included among the reforms, which were backed by the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday June 20 by 14 votes to nine, with two abstentions, is the requirement for UGC platforms to either pay fees to right holders whose content is uploaded, or to ensure that any copyrighted material is blocked if the platform will pay no fee.

Precise details about how those measures will be implemented are not stated, but if passed into European law, they will effectively mean that UGC platforms like YouTube -- which launched its own streaming subscription service this week -- are subject to same licensing terms and conditions as Spotify, Deezer and Apple Music and will no longer be protected by ‘safe harbor’ provisions in Europe.

UGC platforms like YouTube or Dailymotion will also be required to ensure that any blocking mechanisms introduced do not wrongly take down "non-infringing works", as well as establish "easy redress" systems for people to get them reinstated.

Songwriters, musicians and rights holders will additionally be able to claim additional remuneration from the party exploiting their rights (i.e. record label or publisher) if the current deal is "disproportionately" low, compared to the revenues they are generating online, states the Copyright Directive, which forms part of the European Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy. The latter point will be of particular interest to veteran acts and composers whose original contracts made no provisions for future digital sales.

Welcoming the changes, which still have to be approved by the entire European Parliament, IMPALA’s executive chair Helen Smith said legislators had sent a "strong and unambiguous message" in tackling the value gap.

"It clarifies what the music sector has been saying for years: if you are in the business of distributing music or other creative works, you need a licence, clear and simple. It's time for the digital market to catch up with progress," said Smith, adding the "eyes of the world are on Europe to set a new standard for creators online."

CISAC director general Gadi Oron said the vote "helps bring more fairness to the creative community in the digital market" and called it "an important step forward" for creators around the world."

One of the most controversial measures included in the Copyright Directive is Article 13, which requires websites to put in place automatic content-recognition filters to prevent copyright infringement. Critics have warned that the law could put an end to memes, remixes and other user-generated content.

Last week, a coalition of internet pioneers and tech experts, including World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, signed an open letter opposing Article 13, calling the legislation "an imminent threat to the future" of the internet.

Equally contentious is Article 11, or "link tax" as it has been dubbed by opponents. It requires online platforms like Google and Facebook to pay a publisher fee if they link to external news content and is intended to help protect small news organizations and ensure they receive "fair remuneration" for their work.

The European Commission (EC) first outlined its proposals for a revised copyright framework in September 2016. Prior to that, the last time that EC radically overhauled its copyright laws was in 2001, long before streaming and -- at the heart of the matter – user generated services like YouTube existed.

"This vote marks the first step of the parliamentary procedure to adopt copyright laws fit to meet the challenges of the internet," said MEP and rapporteur Axel Voss after the vote.

"The internet of today is fundamentally different to what it was in 2001. Creators and news publishers must adapt to the new world of the internet as it works today," Voss went on to say, identifying "opportunities" as well as "important drawbacks."

"Notably, news publishers and artists, especially the smaller ones, are not getting paid due to the practices of powerful online content-sharing platforms and news aggregators. This is wrong and we aim to redress it," he stated.

In response to the vote, YouTube owner Google issued a statement saying, "We’ve always believed there’s a better way than this, and that innovation and partnership are the keys to successful, diverse and sustainable news and creative sectors in the EU."

"For both European creators and consumers, it’s vital to preserve the principles of linking, sharing and creativity on which so much of the web’s success is built," said the spokesperson. Echoing Google’s concerns, U.S-based non-profit organization Creative Commons called the vote a "dark day for the open web."

The EC is scheduled to hold a plenary vote on July 2 where MEPs can challenge or approve the decision. 


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