The European Parliament Committee on Legal Affairs on June 20 passed Article 11 and Article 13, which could spell the end of memes on the European internet.

The controversial decision has been painted as an issue of personal liberty and government overreach. However, the past legislation on internet copyright laws have always been decided by corporate interests, and the EU Copyright Reform Proposal will be no different.

Copyright Goes Hand-in-Hand With Capitalism

Copyright is an issue unique to capitalism because it asserts that people and corporations can claim private ownership of ideas. Alexey Pajitnov created Tetris, the most popular and profitable video game in history, but he made no profit from it since he handed it over to the Soviet government. It wasn’t until he immigrated to the United States and co-founded the Tetris Company that he finally began to receive royalties from the game he conceptualized, programmed, and designed.

For centuries, capitalist countries have tried to find the sweet spot of regulation that allows corporations to grow off of good ideas without stifling would-be entrepreneurs who could take those ideas and make them better. Over time, the duration of copyrights has grown more and more stringent. In 1790, a copyright only lasted for 30 years in the United States before it entered public domain. Today, a copyright can last over 100 years.

Expansion of US copyright length over time.
Expansion of US copyright length over time.

In the United States and Europe, fair use laws have made the internet a ripe source of business expansion. There is an entire industry now dedicated solely to the management and mastery of social media, positions which were non-existent less than a decade ago and are essential today. Generous laws that allowed widespread sharing and modification of copyrighted media is a big part of that growth. Memes helped build the internet.

But the parties that keep the meme dream alive aren’t private citizens — it’s corporations.

"Is This a Pigeon?" Meme
"Is This a Pigeon?" Meme

Copyright Legislation Is a Battle Between Old Corporations Against the New

In 2011, a bill called Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) hit the floor of the United States Congress to a deeply polarized reception. Proponents of the bill claimed that the stricter provisions on copyright laws would save hundreds of American jobs that were under the threat of online piracy while critics of the bill said it would curb free speech and open the gate to mass censorship. SOPA was framed as a moral issue that put security and freedom at odds with one another. All the parties involved claimed they were fighting for the little guy.

In reality, both sides were made up of corporations with deeply vested interests. Over a hundred associations including the Fraternal Order of Police, the Better Business Bureau, and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) defended the bill. The RIAA is also the organization that declared war on Napster, claiming that the P2P program would kill the music industry.

On the other side were Reddit, Wikipedia, Google, and the other 7,000 companies which have greatly profited from a free internet. The 24-hour blackout the internet corporations staged was perhaps the biggest bulwark that prevented SOPA from being passed. Before this, SOPA was enjoying widespread bipartisan support, perhaps because Congress is full of people who neither use nor understand these internet platforms.

Internet freedom has always been decided by corporate interest, and our benefit is just a happy side effect.

Distracted boyfriend meme
"Distracted Boyfriend" Meme

At the End of the Day, Corporations Will Decide the Fate of Memes

The legislation in Article 11 and Article 13 remain frustrating vague. Julia Red of the Pirate Party is right: These new reforms could very well kill memes, but the bigger picture consequences can be far more devastating. The burgeoning industry of video game livestreaming on platforms like Twitch could be gone with it. If SOPA had passed, I’m not sure there would be a streaming industry today.

Politics is a dirty game. If you want to win, you have to draft the right players into your team, and the EU Copyright reform is no different. For the European meme economy to be saved, the opposition must court the companies who have the most to lose from its passing.