From Beethoven to Despacito: Five Songs explain EU copyright reform

Metallica fired the first shot in the epic battle over copyright enforcement on the internet. 20 years later, Brussels fights over Another Brick in the Wall. EU copyright reform could change everything, even Despacito. We made you a mixtape on the controversial law.

Pink Floyd Another Brick in the Wall Artwork
Pink Floyd inspires many, even EU legislators CC-BY 4.0 Nesta592

When it is about money, even stars have to play politics. That is why ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney joined forces with the likes of opera singer Placido Domingo and others to lobby for EU copyright reform. Hundreds of stars recently signed an open letter to the EU parliament. They demand content filtering on platforms such as Youtube to ensure more advertising revenue goes to artists. These same plans infuriate civil rights advocates as filters are likely to block both illegal and legal content and thus automate an indiscriminate system of censorship.

The filters are part of a EU copyright package that is set to pass early next year. Some weeks ago, the European Parliament sent their proposal to the closed-door negotiations with the Commission and member states about a final text.

If the proposals seem convoluted and opaque, don’t despair. You don’t have to trawl through documents to understand the reform. We’ve made a mix tape for you.

Metallica,“I Disappear“

Metallica’s „I Disappear“ is a milestone of music history. Not just because it made Tom Cruise look cool in Mission Impossible and, like other Metallica songs, is perfect for karaoke. No, it gets even better. In March 2000, Metallica sued Napster, an online music sharing platform, over copyright violations for „I Disappear“. The lawsuit heralded two decades of an epic battle between the music industry and net pirates.

In the meanwhile, sharing platforms are history and the music industries fortunes are soaring due to revenue from streaming services such as Spotify. For every euro Spotify makes, over 75 cent go to the three major labels, Sony Music, Warner and Universal. But still, the music industry keeps complaining about a „value gap“ between their income and those of platforms such as Youtube and Facebook. The wishes of rights holders where duly noted by the European Commission in its proposal for copyright reform. The demands of thousands of internet users for fair-use-policies, however, were ignored in public consultations held by the Commission.

Luis Fonsi, „Despacito“

The hit song from Puerto Rico is the most-viewed Youtube video of all times. It scores close to six billion views, nearly one for every human on the planet. And yet, the video could soon vanish from the platform, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki recently warned in a blogpost. The post sparked outrage among creators on the platform. „Don’t take our Youtube“, they cried, blasting EU plans for mandatory upload filtering.

In fact, YouTube already filters uploads with its Content ID system. Rights holders can register their content in the database. If YouTube finds a match, the rights holder can decide whether to allow or block the video, or to share profits with Google on advertising. In other words, Google has created a business model from enforcing copyright. That model is possible because under current law, Google only is liable for copyright violations on YouTube if the company is aware of them.

This beneficial situation is likely to end with the proposed copyright changes. YouTube would be compelled to block possible copyright violations in the EU instead of tolerating them. That could lead to many videos being filtered, including Despacito. ‚Although YouTube has agreements with multiple entities to license and pay for the video, some of the rights holders remain unknown‘, Wojcicki wrote. Yet Google is not lobbying against filters per se, but only against tougher liability rules. Harder filters are most likely to hit occasional users uploading home videos containing small bits of copyrighted material, like music playing in the background at a grill party. More filters will likely affect everything, including Despacito.

Pink Floyd, „Another Brick in the Wall“

How would „Another Brick in the Wall“ sound without the eerie background vocals of the childrens choir? Back in 1979 when Pink Floyd recorded the song, the school was paid a measly 1,000 British pounds. 25 years later, after the song had become a world hit, a royalties agent filed a claim on behalf of the kids for a fairer share of the profits.

The EU copyright reform intends to end unfair treatment of artists. Total buy-out contracts and other forms contractual gagging would be outlawed. Proposals by the EU parliament call for ‚fair and proportionate remuneration‘ of artists. But that won’t keep, it appears. Behind closed doors, negotiators watered down artists rights by a mile. Unfair business practices will likely be here to stay. Hey, teacher!

Kraftwerk, „Metal On Metal“

For over twenty years, Kraftwerk has fought over two seconds. The German electronica pioneers have been suing producer Moses Pelham over a sample from their 1977 song ‚Metal on Metal‘. Pelham used the 2-second-blip as a loop in Sabrina Setlur’s 1997 rap track „Nur Mir“. In 2016, the German Constitutional Court decided for the freedom to sample. But the case still isn’t decided. The German court referred the matter to the European Court of Justice. The judges must decide whether restrictive European copyright law leaves room for sampling exceptions in member states such as Germany.

The Kraftwerk case shows where copyright reform falls short. Proposals failed to include rights to use samples and remix other works. That exposes internet memes using copyrighted material to filtering. While US copyright establishes a fair-use principle, EU copyright lacks such provisions. Reform proposals ignored calls by the German justice ministers and others for a ‚right to remix‘. That means that the ECJ could soon ban even the legal use of 2-second samples in member states.

Beethoven, Symphony No. 5

Beethoven’s Fifth is easily recognized even by the tone-deaf for its dramatic „ta-ta-ta-ta“ opening. The symphony is over 200 years old and no longer protected by copyright. But YouTube doesn’t care. When German music researcher Ulrich Kaiser recently uploaded a public domain recording of the 5th Symphony, YouTube’s filters accused him of copyright violation. Evidently, not even Google’s elaborate system can recognize the difference between different recordings of classical music. Moreover, rights holders use the Content-ID system to claim rights to recordings they don’t have and claim a share of YouTube’s ad revenues.

Kaisers protests were futile. YouTube still takes the piece to be copyrighted. The example shows how poor the judgement of automated filter systems still is. Filtering obligations could make the situation worse. Thousands of classical music pieces and other works in public domain are under threat. Beethoven’s „ta-ta-ta-ta“ could soon die in silence.

Not the only dissonance

The list of off notes in the law echos on an on. Copyright reform could put even short text snippets under copyright protection, which leads critics to warn of a ‚link tax‘. A clause in the EU parliament’s proposals could lead to fan videos or pictures of sporting events being censored. And rules on text- and data mining might even arrest the development of AI. Can’t someone write a song about that?

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