Copyright row reaches European Parliament in Strasbourg

A yearslong battle that has pitted artists against big tech is set to come to a head in Strasbourg on Wednesday, when the European Parliament will vote on whether to update copyright protections for the age of content-sharing platforms.

Two contentious proposals are at the heart of the drama: Article 11, which covers the rights of press publishers, and Article 13, which would hold tech giants liable for copyright infringement committed on their platforms. Critics fear that the former is unworkable and the latter could lead to "upload filters," or algorithms that would give tech giants control over what content appears on their platform. A range of conflicting amendments could see far-reaching compromise solutions pulled in at the last minute.

If the directive goes through in its current form, critics fear that it will run counter to the web's founding principles of free-flowing information — and, as the rap artist Wyclef Jean suggests, make it harder for people to find new culture and talent.

Jean, a former member of American hip-hop group The Fugees, stands on one side of a fractious debate over internet freedom that has pitched artists and musicians against tech giants and internet activists.

Critics have highlighted the potential for "overblocking," in which cautious algorithms censor content even when it does not breach copyright law, and warned of the cost that such a requirement would have for smaller publishing platforms.

"I've worked with so many young artists ... who have sampled my music and succeeded," Jean said in a press briefing on EU copyright at the European Parliament on Tuesday. "Upload filters or anything else that restricts this will stop artists from making and creating the future."

'Freedom means ... respect'

Since it was first proposed in 2016, the copyright directive has become a battleground for artists, many of whom want to stop internet platforms from freely hosting their content, and internet activists, who fear the vaguely worded rules will crush freedom of expression on the internet.

Artists, too, find themselves on both sides of the issue. Jean-Claude Moreau, chairman of the Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of Music, which supports the reform, said artists would "prefer no directive to a bad directive."

"Freedom means we have to respect also the authors ... because the creators must [make] a living off their works," Moreau said at a protest outside the European Parliament on Tuesday.

"We want the internet to be an accelerator, not a brake," he added.

On Wednesday more than 200 amendments to the bill will be discussed, in a flurry of effort to find compromise between the demands of content creators and the rights of users.

"I think last time most members rejected the proposal because they were convinced Article 13 is bad and that it's not a good idea to scan content prior to the upload, " said Tiemo Wölken, a German member of the European Parliament, who describes the current proposals as "dangerous" and has brought forth his own amendments.

"My idea is to say if a platform is performing actively — so, organizing and optimizing content to earn money — they are liable," Wölken said. "And, if a right holder requests to conclude a license agreement with the platform, the platform has to enter into a fair an appropriate licensing agreement."

Though the number of potential solutions make it difficult to predict what the final bill will look like, lawmakers are still optimistic that it will pass. Wölken called on fellow German MEP Axel Voss, who is in charge of the bill's final appearance, to push harder for a compromise.

"To be honest, there are solutions on the table," Wölken said. "He just has to combine the proposed solutions to find a proposal that would be carried by the majority of the plenary."

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