Article 11 copyright reform: what the text provides

In mid-April, the European Council approved the continental copyright reform. Article 11 is one of the most contested: here's why

On March 27, 2019, the European Parliament approved, by a large majority, the continental copyright reform (in parliamentary jargon, Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market), which provides for substantial changes in the management and defense of copyright. The same text was ratified by the European Council on April 15, 2019 (with Italy and other states voting against), becoming for all intents and purposes an EU law.

The approval process of the EU copyright reform has been anything but linear. The first "Yes" from the Strasbourg Parliament was supposed to come in the summer of 2018, but the various voices of protest that have been raised have delayed approval by several months. Attracting the attentions of critics, in particular, were Article 11 and Article 13 (which became Article 15 and Article 17, respectively, in the final text of the EU Copyright Law). The former changes the relationship between publishers, journalists and news aggregators (such as Google News, for example); the latter imposes stricter controls on those who manage portals based on User Generated Content (such as YouTube, for example) to prevent the publication of copyrighted content.

Wikipedia has repeatedly blacked out its site (or covered the images of the headwords with black); YouTube has shown a warning on its home page for several days; Google has changed the display of search results, showing how the pages of search results could change because of the new copyright rules. On the side of the web giants, associations for the defense of freedom of expression, digital activists and experts in computer law and intellectual property have lined up and signed an appeal to block the approval of the text.

Copyright reform, what changes for users and websites

The effects of the new EU copyright law will not be immediate. As per the European legislative process, individual Member States now have 2 years to ratify the law and transform it into national law. In this period of time, national parliaments can intervene, correcting some details (but not changing the meaning) of the text. Not to mention that the elections for the renewal of the European Parliament on May 26th could upset the current balance in the Strasbourg hemicycle, with possible consequences also on the copyright reform.

Article 11 copyright reform: what it provides and how it should change the web

Article 15 of the new European copyright law, entitled "Protection of journalistic publications in case of digital use", was created with the aim of regulating the relationship between publishers and content creators and portals that collect and aggregate news (aggregators, in fact). Up to now, anyone can create an aggregator and give users the chance to stay up-to-date by reading headlines and short extracts without paying anything. It is, in fact, a sort of search engine that "composes" a daily newspaper always updated with the news of the moment. Some examples? The aforementioned Google News, but also Flipboard, Feedly, Diggita and many others.

Under Article 15 of the Copyright Directive (former Article 11, to be clear), platforms that publish snippets of journalistic content are obliged to obtain a license from the rights holder in advance. Obviously, the publisher or journalist can ask for fair compensation from the company managing the aggregators or platforms that publish snippets (i.e., short extracts usually consisting of a title and a brief description of the content). The same article, however, also provides for exceptions: in case only the link or "single words or short extracts" are published, you are not required to pay anything. The European legislation, however, does not specify what is meant by the expression "short extracts" (how many words make up a short extract? 5, 10, 15?) and it is easy to assume that the negotiations between publishers, journalists and web companies will concern this definition.

The impact that the rule could have, however, does not concern only portals that aggregate news from various sources. Even if we don't realize it, in fact, doing a simple search on an engine like Google, Bing, Yahoo! or Ariadne, we will surely find at least one journalistic result. If, for example, you look for a guide on how to update WhatsApp (a topic apparently unrelated to journalistic issues) you will find that most of the results are made by newspapers or platforms "assimilated". In short, once the directive on copyright in the digital single market comes into force, it is not only aggregators that will change, but also search engines.

A taste of what the web might be like in a few years' time has already been given by Google. During the days of the debate in the Strasbourg hemicycle, in fact, the search engine par excellence has started an experiment by modifying the display of results linked to the new European norm. The snippets of newspapers and information portals have been replaced by the link to the content or, at most, by the title only. According to the data released by the Mountain View company, the organic traffic of the portals subject to experimentation has dropped by about 30%.