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.

APC Australia - - Contents -

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.

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