The photo credit accompanying this article has been changed to reflect proper ownership. 

On Sept. 12, the European Parliament, the elected legislature that represents all 28 member states of the European Union, passed a suite of laws under the name “Copyright Directive.” This new set of regulations and statutes pertains to the use of unique content in internet-related publications such as videos, news articles and, much to the discontent of young people, memes. Though this piece of legislation is quite wordy, as all laws tend to be, two sub-articles within this directive have attracted quite a bit of controversy. 

One segment of the directive, labeled “Article 11,” seeks to add a rather hefty price tag to the third-party use of any copyrighted content, regardless if the rights holder is actively pursuing royalties. For example, if a YouTube movie review features a clip from an independent filmmaker, or an article finds its way onto Google’s News Feed, which in turn attracts millions of visitors to the search engine, the entity responsible for sharing it would then have to pay a royalty to the original creator for use of said snippet.  In arguing for the passage of the Copyright Directive, German media publisher Axel Springer has argued that large tech companies like Google and Reddit have made themselves indispensable in the digital space. In an open letter to employees Mathias Doepfner, CEO of Axel Springer, wrote “The statement ‘if you don’t like Google, you can remove yourself from their listings and go elsewhere’ is about as realistic as recommending to an opponent of nuclear power that they just stop using electricity.”

According proponents like Axel Springer, Article 11’s passage would result in a more well-balanced distribution of wealth and profits across the internet landscape, in addition to greater press freedom. In theory, tech behemoths such as Google and Facebook will suffer the greater financial burden, as any content publisher linked to by said platforms can theoretically charge some form of fee, labeled a “link tax.” Indeed, one case put forth by the Parliament pointed to the fact that Google and Facebook can provide links and references to a virtually unlimited array of information, potentially attracting billions of clicks and advertising revenue. Most, if not all, of that content does not belong to them. Even though they reap the benefits of linking to them, content hubs get all of their material without having to pay a single cent; the logical conclusion upon learning this fact is that Google seems to control the news. At first glance, this may seem like a clever and justified regulation of the world wide web, because the “little guy,” i.e. any individual or company that creates and proves ownership of a piece of intellectual property, is given a greater chance to prosper and succeed. Previously locked out of the loop, content creators can theoretically benefit from the use of their brainchild by a much larger and more economically powerful internet presence. However, a caveat must be included here -- Article 11 might end in disaster for these small publishers. If Wikipedia, Facebook or any other content aggregator is forced to start paying link taxes on European content, they’ll just stop linking to it. Instead of getting a small piece of a large pie, publishers could be getting the whole cut of a non-existent reader base. 

The other, significantly more controversial facet to the Copyright Directive is Article 13, which many critics have dubbed as a ban on internet memes. This subset of the edict halts the spread and use of copyrighted material by third parties, which gives Google and other major media-sharing sites the ability to forcefully take down any post even remotely containing material not attributable to the original poster. This includes internet memes, comedic parodies of movies or television shows and even commentaries and subjective analsyes. Most memes, or comedic internet content in general, are usually based off of some kind of media created by a separate entity entirely. Not very original, but a bedrock of posting culture. For example, a popular meme circling around the internet last year depicted the Star Wars villain Kylo Ren without a shirt, whereupon the viewer is exposed to Adam Driver’s oddly wide physique.  Under this new law, anything, even something as trivial as a picture with a funny caption such as “Han Swolo” that containes Mr. Driver’s shirtless torso, must be removed, as that picture can reasonably be classified as the intellectual property of Disney.  While this is a more humorous example, memes at their core are an art form and vital to satire – one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy – and self-expression as a whole.  The most immediate conclusion one can draw is that this new law is a restriction of free speech as a whole, as even individuals can no longer use any form of third-party media without payment. Essentially, Article 13 would completely invalidate Fair Use, the longstanding legal framework that allows reasonable use of copyrighted content within a transformational context. Losing memes may be one thing, but without Fair Use, most of the internet’s content as we know it would be vulnerable to deletion. 

After contrasting the relative good of Article 11 with the real threat presented by Article 13, a philosophical question can be raised; is it worth it to level the playing field of a landscape virtually dominated by virtually omnipotent search engines and social networks and better-protect intellectual property at the cost of a major component of free speech in the 21st century? Many have taken to poking fun at this law by, of course, making it into a meme, but this has others worried. Can humor that also serves as a form of criticism be censored under the guise of “copyrighted material” to the point where protecting intellectual property is no longer the priority? With a scope as wide as the Copyright Directive’s, such wide-ranging censorship powers are within reach. 

As the Copyright Directive is further analyzed and debated, the issues described above are of the utmost importance to both ensuring the survival of free speech on the internet and protecting the hard work of individual publishers.