EU the only hope for protecting copyrights online
The internet has brought information and art to billions of people worldwide. We all know the wonders of the connected world — we now have news, history, visual art, movies, music, poetry and basic facts at our fingertips. Based on this one technological platform, new companies worth billions of dollars are springing up regularly.
Yet the development of the internet has not always been kind to those who create the content we consume. Now, however, the EU is trying to do something about that. The EU’s efforts pit the excitement of new tech businesses against the need to protect creators’ intellectual property. For the sake of a cultured civilization, we should root for the creators.
The EU Copyright Directive is intended to update the protections of copyrighted material posted online. Some have already said that it will require online platforms to adopt automated copyright filters. Popular sites such as Facebook and YouTube can afford such filters, but the concern is that less profitable sites and startups will not be able to police content uploaded by users.
This is a valid concern, but the concern of content creators should supersede that of the tech firms. Unregulated content sharing on the internet is great for the websites and the consumers, but it makes the content valueless. Artists and writers work to get paid, like everyone else in the world. If the content they struggled to create is shared freely, they do not get paid. If they do not get paid, they have no reason to continue producing. If they stop producing, our civilization loses knowledge and culture. Then we are all damaged.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, an online platform called Napster became popular. It was a site that allowed users to upload and download music for free. At its peak, more than 25 million global users were downloading all sorts of songs for free. Eventually, America’s powerful record labels filed a suit and a US court forced the free Napster song emporium to close.
Freedom of speech is vital to ensure people do not face punishment for commenting on sensitive subjects such as politics, history or religion, but it does not mean — and never has meant — squelching creators’ ability to be compensated for their products.
Ellen R. Wald
Napster users were unhappy, but it was the right resolution. If Napster had continued in that form, sharing songs for free, musicians would have lost a major financial incentive to produce. Ultimately, iTunes and other music streaming and purchasing platforms arose, but these new sites all pay royalties to the record labels and musicians. The online music streaming and purchasing sites represent the internet’s ability to change a marketplace. Napster, for a short time, represented the internet’s ability to destroy a marketplace.
A good amount of music is still available for illegal download or free streaming without license. Even YouTube has videos of copyrighted music shared without permission, but musicians now also have an opportunity to profit off sites like YouTube through licensed videos. The big music industry and the powerful film industry seem to have mostly conquered the illegal sharing problem.
However, the rest of the creators have not won. Sites across the internet violate copyrights all the time, from the unlicensed reprinting of a news article or opinion column to the reproduction of entire books. Visual art and independent video and music are often copied illegally on the internet. This must stop.
The original publishers of the content, such as newspapers, lose value each time writing from their publications is stolen on the internet, and that lessens their ability to compensate well for new content. Those writers and creators who continue to produce for little or no real compensation will not be the best, because the best will mostly pursue other sources of income. The internet promised to bring us information, not end the creation of quality new content.
Opponents of this EU measure have begun to argue that it is an attack on free speech, but it is not. Free speech means speech is unimpeded, not that the consumption of it is free (without monetary cost). Freedom of speech is vital to ensure people do not face punishment for commenting on sensitive subjects such as politics, history or religion, but it does not mean — and never has meant — squelching creators’ ability to be compensated for their products.
The EU may be the only hope for the protection of intellectual property on the internet. The US is not pursuing such protections, except through the powerful music and film industries, and perhaps it never will. China is notoriously lax on intellectual property and no other jurisdiction has the influence to effect change. Because the internet is a global network, the EU might be powerful enough to force websites and tech firms around the world to institute serious protections of copyrights. Let us hope so.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy