The European Parliament voted in favor of reforming the (admittedly due to be adjusted) copyright law in Europe. By itself, the new law isn't that controversial and will actually help creators and journalists get their fair share of income from big online players like YouTube and Google News. But don't put your torchlights and pitchforks down just yet. The directive might lead big platforms to implement upload filters to catch copyright infringement before content is published — which could possibly kill GIFs and memes.
Okay, let's slow down now. First, we need to address where exactly those upload filters come from. Previously (and anywhere else in the world) a person or entity who uploaded content to an online platform was solely responsible for copyright infringement he or she committed with their material. The new EU draft now also puts this liability into platforms' hands, and it's formulated beautifully in a Q&A published today:
The draft directive sets a goal to be achieved - An online platform must not earn money from material created by people without compensating them. Therefore, a platform is legally liable if there is content on its site for which it has not properly paid the creator. This means that those whose work is used illegally can sue the platform.
You see, the law itself doesn't ask for upload filters. But naturally, platforms don't want to be sued, and an obvious protection are filters that hinder anyone from publishing copyrighted material in the first place. Thus, platforms will probably turn towards these safety measures.
However, we all know that today's content filters are just not very good. They tend to be too restrictive or not restrictive enough. And I'm talking about technology from one of the world's most wealthy companies — Google — with an interest to protect itself from copyright claims on its platforms. Thus, the EU filters will most likely turn out to be rather too restrictive than not restrictive enough.
Before we get to memes, we need to take a look at another legal topic first: fair use. The new directive explicitly wants member states to protect uploading and sharing of works in order to quote, criticize, review, caricature, parody or pastiche others. This should in theory ensure that GIFs and memes are exempted from copyright claims, and gives your average meme poster more protection from draconic lawsuits.
But now, to memes. From the lawmakers' perspective, you and the big platforms won't get into any trouble whatsoever should you share memes and GIFs. However, we know that filters will probably be rather too restrictive than too lenient, so that platforms don't lose money over copyright claims. And we know that there are a ton of cases on the boundaries of fair use, which shows that parody and caricature are thin lines even we humans have trouble recognizing.
A filter will just see that any given meme is identical to a protected picture — it won't assess whether the text surrounding said meme is caricaturing or criticizing the original copyrighted material. The filter simply won't let the meme pass.
As you can see, this initiative will have far-reaching consequences that we can't fully grasp yet. We'll have to wait and see how individual member states implement this directive — and how YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, reddit, and other big platforms react to those new laws.