Copyright Battle in Europe Pits Media Companies Against Tech Giants

Copyright Battle in Europe Pits Media Companies Against Tech Giants

Publishers, music companies support the law because they would get the right to negotiate payment for “digital use” from Facebook, Google

By Daniel Michaels Updated Sept. 10, 2018 10:26 a.m. ET

BRUSSELS — A new European push to rein in tech giants through copyright legislation is sparking fierce debate and questions about whether the proposed law would accomplish its goals.

The fight pits big publishers, music companies and movie directors against internet giants including Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, as well as open-internet advocates and some small publishers.

It is coming to a head because the European Parliament plans to vote Wednesday on a draft copyright directive that supporters say would bolster media producers against internet platforms and hold those platforms more responsible for paying for content, such as copyrighted music playing in the background of an uploaded home video.

The vote, which also will include more than 200 proposed amendments, will set parameters for potentially protracted negotiations among the parliament, the EU’s executive body and European governments. If a law is ultimately agreed, EU countries would have up to two years to implement the new rules, which would be enforced by member countries.

The proposal comes atop recently enacted EU web-privacy legislation, known as GDPR, a $5 billion fine levied on Google’s Android mobile operating system, and EU rules requiring search engines to remove material as requested by individuals in certain cases.

Critics of the draft, including both technology giants and individuals who want to maintain easy sharing on the web, contend the law would have many negative consequences, including stifling free expression, hampering innovation and forcing new expenses on small startups required to filter content for copyright material.

Fighting over the law has been unusually fierce, say veterans of EU legislative battles. Celebrities including Paul McCartney and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales have lobbied for and against the law, respectively. EU legislators say they’ve received hundreds of emails against the draft text on some days.

Media companies, particularly publishers, say their business has been gutted by Facebook and Google through their sharing of published materials that provide little or no revenue or user data back to the publishers. The platforms’ behavior amounts to theft, said Mathias Döpfner, chief executive of German publisher Axel Springer SE. The new law would give news publishers the right to negotiate payment for “digital use” of their content by tech firms.

“If somebody else can just steal what you have created,” he told a conference organized by German rival Hubert Burda Media in Brussels, “then this is just a hopeless case for content creators.”

Burda CEO Paul-Bernard Kallen said the principle “is a matter of justice.”

News Corp, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, supports the law’s copyright protection.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on the draft law. When it was first proposed in 2016, Google’s head of public policy said in a blog that the draft contained “worrying elements” that could mean “everything uploaded to the web must be cleared by lawyers before it can find an audience.”

A spokeswoman for Facebook said that its platform offers tools for rights holders to protect their content, adding “We hope that the debate going forward will focus on the original mission of protecting copyright and ensuring a vibrant marketplace for content creation.”

Opponents also include Julia Reda, a member of the European Parliament from the Pirate Party, which advocates open access and personal privacy on the internet. She has called the copyright law a “link tax,” warning the law could force internet users to pay for content accessed through hyperlinks that they now get for free. In July she helped derail the law from fast-track approval because it “would have massively restricted our freedom of expression,” a statement on her website says.

Hyperlinks have been explicitly excluded from the law, say advocates, meaning there would be no “link tax.”

The fight is raging even though some backers acknowledge the law, if enacted, would face tough odds in changing how news is presented on the internet. Similar laws in Germany and Spain had little impact and in Spain prompted Google to stop its Google News service. Still, backers say, a law covering the EU’s 28 countries would force platforms to change their behavior.

“Having something at the European level creates a new dynamic,” said Angela Mills Wade, executive director of the European Publishers Council, a trade group.

Print publishers say the law would give them rights similar to those held by copyright owners of music and video material. “Legal recognition gives us better legal standing against the platforms in negotiations on usage” of published material, said Miruna Herovanu, an adviser at News Media Europe, a trade group.

Some small publishers, individuals and academics who want broad distribution more than revenue fear the law would restrict publication of their materials.

Mathias Vermeulen, a spokesman for Dutch EU lawmaker Marietje Schaake, who is critical of the law, said she received about 3,000 emails before a vote on the law earlier in the summer. He said publishers ignored concerns of more than 200 academics about the law.

“In the end this was a very sad debate to watch,” Mr. Vermeulen said.

—Sam Schechner and Valentina Pop contributed to this article.


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