The European Parliament has changed the European Union’s copyright rules for the first time in 18 years, and it could have some unintended consequences for internet culture. The governing body passed the Copyright Directive Tuesday, which is filled with legislation that protects the work of creatives but could have a chilling effect on vibrant, online communities that riff off creative work. That’s where the memes come in.
Article 13 is the hairiest subsection of the directive, and it’s the detail that meme-ers online are most worried about. It flips the script and makes online platforms responsible for guarding against copyright infringement, instead of having copyright owners actively searching for violations.
It sounds like a good idea in theory, but the way online platforms would be forced to monitor for copyrighted content is what could endanger meme creation in Europe and across the internet.
Article 13: What Is It?
Article 13 was called the “the most controversial part of the Copyright Directive,” by online activist and author Cory Doctorow. It requires platforms make their “best efforts” to obtain permission to host copyrighted content before it is uploaded to their servers.
If a European meme-maker posted a Thanos meme on Facebook, the social media site could be legally liable to Marvel Studios for copyright infringement.
To guard against this, tech companies would need to acquire licensing for every movies screenshot or series still that users could make memes of or begin using filters to block unlicensed content. That’s the root of the issue.
Article 13: How Does It Relate to Memes?
Article 13 doesn’t require that filters used and the European Parliament even stated that some uploaded material, such as memes or GIFs, [are] now specifically excluded from directive” in a press release after the directive’s approval. But it fails to explain how tech companies should go about sniffing out copyright violations without using sweeping content filters that catch far more media than they’re intended.
As it stands, the legislation implicitly incentivizes the use of filters that can tell the difference between outright copyright infringement and memes. Automated social media filters are notoriously easy to fool and simply don’t understand when someone is meme-ing or purposefully lifting content.
Evan Engstrom of the Engine Research Foundation, and Princeton University’s Nick Feamster, outline the limitations of common filtering techniques in their most recent “The Limits of Filtering” report.
“Such technologies are not sufficient to consistently identify infringements with accuracy,” states the report. “They can only indicate whether a file’s contents match protected content, not whether a particular use of an identified file is an infringement in light of the context within which the media was being used.”
These innate weaknesses would force platforms to enlist the help of human moderators to parse the nuanced differences of millions of social media posts or ban certain images from being uploaded altogether. Facebook employee thousands of content moderators, who’s are reportedly underpaid and exposed to traumatic content everyday with little no support by their employers.
The simplest and most affordable solution here would just be blocking all copyrighted images. That would mean European meme-makers could no longer upload memes involving: the Avengers franchise, Pokémon, Spiderman, or any other caricatures they don’t own the rights to.
Article 13: The Internet’s Reaction
The subreddit /r/MemeEconomy — a community made up of meme connoisseurs — was quick to react the only way they know how.
The most popular post on the forum the day Article 13 was passed encouraged European users to use a virtual private network to fool social media platforms into believing they’re posting from outside the EU.
Another one riffed on the Psst Spiderman meme and offered to send Euro Redditors “illegal memes.”
Other suggested making their own renditions of popular meme imagery to avoid being blocked.
Some users reminded their online buds that certain images aren’t subject to copyright and are just as good as copyrighted content.
Finally, users couldn’t help but poke fun at the EU for inadvertently endangering memes instead of passing other legislation.
Article 13: What Happens Next?
Hope for European memes isn’t lost. The legislation has yet to take effect, the EU has two years to refine the legislation to improve how it is implemented in each individual country that makes up the union.
That leaves time for activists in Europe to pressure their representatives as the finer details of the directive are determined.