Years ago, the internet effectively destroyed the once-mighty business model of newspapers. It has also put considerable pressure on other traditional media and entertainment, which often argue their work is being pirated and distributed online without fair compensation.
There can be little dispute that journalism is critical to democratic societies. However, the question is what to do about the business models of legacy media organizations. The recently proposed EU copyright directive has one answer — and it’s one that Google doesn’t like very much.
Here’s what the European Commission says the proposed rules will accomplish:
- better choice and access to content online and across borders;
- improved copyright rules on research, education and inclusion of disabled people; and
- a fairer and sustainable marketplace for creators, the creative industries and the press.
One of the additional objectives of the new rules, which must be approved by the European Parliament, is to harmonize copyright laws across the EU. However, Google says the directive would take the largely failed copyright approaches of Spain and Germany and impose them throughout Europe.
As a practical matter, the EU is seeking to strengthen the bargaining power of traditional publishers versus giant internet companies like Google. Critics call the new directive’s copyright provisions a link tax. Publishers argue it’s about basic fairness.
Google could be required to pay whenever it shows publisher content in News or search results. As indicated, similar copyright laws in Spain and Germany have not yielded the anticipated support for traditional news publishers. Yet these more restrictive laws are popular with traditional media because many blame Google for the decline of their revenues — they like the compulsory and even punitive dimension of these rules.
Pointing to Germany and Spain, Google argues the proposed rules might have many unintended consequences, including reducing traffic to news sites:
The proposal looks similar to failed laws in Germany and Spain, and represents a backward step for copyright in Europe. It would hurt anyone who writes, reads or shares the news — including the many European startups working with the news sector to build sustainable business models online. As proposed, it could also limit Google’s ability to send monetizable traffic, for free, to news publishers via Google News and Search. After all, paying to display snippets is not a viable option for anyone.
While Google is making a self-interested argument, there is truth to what the company is saying. Google might shutter its news sites across Europe rather than pay fees to display links and snippets. When this happened in Spain, the Spanish Newspaper Publishers Association unsuccessfully sought to prevent Google from shutting down its News site so that it would be forced to pay copyright fees to publishers.
Another major provision of the proposed directive would require much more aggressive and proactive policing of music and video content on sites like YouTube. Music and video sites would be forced to proactively scan uploaded content before publishing to make sure it didn’t violate copyright rules, rather than enforcing copyright post-upload.
Google currently polices content on YouTube with what it calls Content ID. However, the more demanding EU rules would create additional requirements. Google argues the new rules would effectively require “everything uploaded to the web [to] be cleared by lawyers before it can find an audience.”
There is certainly legitimacy in the EU’s underlying motivations and desire to create “a fairer and sustainable marketplace for creators, the creative industries and the press.” However, it’s far from clear that these measures would accomplish that objective.