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What a Google Email to News Publications Means for the Music Business

The battle over the proposed European Union Copyright Directive is heating up -- and technology companies have returned to their usual playbook.

The battle over the proposed European Union Copyright Directive is heating up — and technology companies have returned to their usual playbook. That means mobilizing nonprofit groups and academics they support, warning that policies will “break the internet,” and trying to get some creators and media companies on their side.

The latest example: An email from Google to news publications in its Digital News Initiative, a program the company established to help journalism online, asking them to lobby against parts of the Copyright Directive that are intended to help them. The email, from Google director of strategic relations Madhav Chinnappa, argues that giving publications an ancillary right to articles that they need to license content and requiring platforms to takes some responsibility to minimize the amount of copyrighted material uploaded by users would harm publications, as well as the internet. The email, obtained by Billboard, urges recipients to contact members of European Parliament to prevent the directive from passing parliament’s legal affairs committee with these provisions intact — which happened last week.

In layman’s terms, Google is asking a group of partners who have come to depend on its largesse to take action that will make them even more dependent. “It’s extraordinary that they have such leverage over people who have volunteered to participate in this program,” says Angela Mills Wade, executive director of the European Publishers Council.


The email also frames the two controversial parts of the Copyright Directive in terms that would make it hard for anyone to approve of them. Requiring platforms to exercise some responsibility is called “Content filtering aka Pre-censorship,” while the ancillary right for publishers is a “Link Tax” — even though it’s not a tax at all. (The money would go to companies licensing content, not the government.) Both of these are in bold type, presumably for effect.

“Innovation and partnership are the best way to sustain the overall news ecosystem for both publishers and consumers, not this legislative proposal,” Chinnappa said in a statement to the Financial Times.

Most, but not all, European publishers favor the ancillary right, which would let them license content to companies like Google. “Generally these forums that are organized by Google serve Google’s interests,” says Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, a global association for premium publishers. “Publishers are only now understanding that what’s good for Google is generally bad for them.”

Why does this matter for the music business? The ancillary copyright for publishers in Article 11 of the current version of the Copyright Directive won’t affect the industry, but Google and other technology companies are using the same strategy to lobby against Article 13. This would require some platforms, like YouTube, to take steps to prevent users from uploading copyrighted content. Rights holders see this as a way to reduce the “value gap” that lets YouTube take advantage of the fact that it can use content without licensing it to get better deal terms than competitors like Spotify. But an array of nonprofit groups and academics — some of which receive funding from Google and other technology companies — have characterized it as censorship. Some platforms already take these steps now, but a legal requirement to do so could change the balance of negotiating power.


Next week the European Parliament could vote on whether to send the Directive with these provisions to the European Union “trilogue” process, in which bills are finalized by the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Council. (An EU version of the Schoolhouse Rock spot “I’m Just a Bill” is desperately needed.)

Online activists are putting pressure on Members of European Parliament to reject both Article 11 and Article 13. In many cases, however, they are closely aligned with technology lobbyists. The popular web site saveyourinternet.eu, which tells users that “15 MEPs voted to break our Internet” and encourages them to email and call their representatives in Brussels, is run by the organization Copyright for Creativity — which has received “main current grants” from the Computer and Communications Industry Association and has a “secretariat” run by the lobbying company N-square, which represents Google and other technology interests.

“The unfettered self-interest of technology companies, masquerading as ideology, has been unleashed against European creativity,” says Crispin Hunt, chair of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers & Authors (BASCA) and a creator himself who has written or produced songs for Ellie Goulding and Florence and the Machine. “Rules won’t break the Internet — they’ll mend it.”

Media business lobbyists fear that this could play out as a repeat of the struggle around the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), The U.S. House of Representatives bill that was defeated by a combination of technology lobbying and a call and email campaign that it helped set off. The provisions in the Copyright Directive are far narrower than SOPA, however, and big European countries like France and Germany have a tradition of stronger copyright laws.

It may also be harder for activists to promote a relatively unregulated internet as an innovation that equalizes economic opportunity and improves political discourse, as they have in the past. A letter against Article 13 signed by dozens of prominent computer scientists and academics warns that it could represent a step toward making the internet “a tool for the automated surveillance and control of its users.” As more information comes out about the involvement of data companies like Cambridge Analytica in both the U.K. Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, however, it will be interesting to see if lawmakers realize that the problems of online surveillance go far beyond anything that involves copyright.