We dive into the EU’s meme-destroying new copyright laws.
New laws passed by the EU could put an end to web memes that riff on existing media – which is most of them, writes Shaun Prescott.
For better or for worse, memes are part of the fabric of the internet. No matter what form they take, whether as a video, image or just as a concept, younger generations might have difficulty imagining a time when every event or phenomenon wasn’t parsed by the logic of internet pop culture references. Memes tend to rely heavily on pre-existing media: for example, a short looping video of Homer Simpson retreating into a hedge (with a panicked look in his eyes) is frequently used to express shock over a given topic. Footage from an Old El Paso commercial featuring a young girl suggesting her family give up choosing and have both (best known as “Why not both? girl”), is often used to humorously suggest combining two options. And so on.
Memes are the culmination of popular culture’s interest in re-contextualising familiar symbols and concepts to unusual or outright weird ends: it’s traceable to earlier forms like hip-hop and even in the experimental writing of William Burroughs. Memes can range from whimsical through to downright terrifying — but all types could now be under threat thanks to a new law recently passed by the European Union. ‘Article 13’, as it’s known, transfers the legal risk of copyright violation away from the users of social platforms like YouTube or Twitter and onto the companies running those platforms — putting Google, Twitter and Facebook at direct risk of litigation. With millions of videos on YouTube, a company like Google could find itself accountable for each one that contains a copyright violation. Given that “copyright violations” are at the heart of meme culture, that spells bad news.
The prospect of a wide scale purging of memes from major platforms has been enough to worry many content creators. But it’s also likely to serve as yet another reinforcement for the Facebook/Google internet duopoly. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine many other social platforms surviving such a devastating blow to their inventory of content and harder still to imagine anyone but Facebook and Google implementing algorithms that could adequately police this new take-no-prisoners approach to copyright violations. But then again, neither of the latter tech giants has yet demonstrated a reliable adeptness at using algorithms to remove offensive or illegal content.
On the other hand, with traditional news media becoming increasingly unviable from a business perspective, it’s understandable that these parties would lobby for some kind of protection against their material being outright stolen. In a pre-internet world, it was unambiguously wrong to disseminate content that didn’t belong to you. Nowadays, it’s often a norm. The fact that Article 13 will hold platforms such as Facebook and Google accountable for this is not an entirely negative thing: these hugely lucrative companies shouldn’t be allowed to indirectly profit from industries by serving up illegal versions of their copyrighted content.
In the words of German Member of the European Parliament Axel Voss: “News publishers and artists 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. The principle of fair pay for work done should apply to everyone, everywhere, whether in the physical or online world.”
But while the intentions appear to be honest, the unintentional collateral damage could be huge.