The Honesty Box – Why the Copyright Vote Can Save Us

If I had the chance to decide on the new EU Copyright Directive, I would vote in favour. Copyright is like a Fair Trade label on our coffee or chocolate. It is important to know who produces the cultural products we love – music, movies, news, and so on – and that the producers get a fair deal when they are enjoyed and shared online. In my world (media), copyright enables makers of quality journalism, photography, investigative reporting and documentary film-making to be paid for their time, their talents and their tenacity. It means the companies that risk their investment to bankroll, publish and distribute these products can be properly compensated, too.

Music composers and performers must sing for themselves. Sir Paul McCartney and Ennio Morricone are already doing it. They have backing singers from the music publishers and rights collection societies and they are doing a great job. But music is not vital for democracy, and quality journalism is.

We live in a world of loud populism and fake news that can skew elections and referenda. In the run-up to the European Parliament election in May, MEPs should recognise that they need to support top-quality independent and investigative journalists and documentary-makers. The GAFA gang (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) are making profits out of European digital citizens’ data. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been called to account in Brussels. The EU Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager has attempted to fine Google. Germany and Spain are using national laws to control what can be shared online. At every step, the Big Tech giants are pushing back. Why? These companies are so vehemently opposed to the new EU Copyright Directive that they are spending millions of dollars and euros lobbying against it. The internet platforms’ role in recent elections (Trump, Brexit) casts doubt on their desire and ability to support democratic processes. So there must be a commercial incentive…

As Dr Bjorn Rupp of GSMK and Chaos Computer Club observed back in 2013, “If you’re not paying, you are not the customer”. That means that we – our data and our cultural choices – we are the products they collect, mine and sell. We get free stuff for sharing our personal private details, so it may feel like a good deal. But it’s a business model. And Big Tech is being disingenuous when it promotes the conspiracy theory that the upload filters foreseen in Article 13 of the new EU Copyright Directive constitute a so-called “censorship machine”.

Is it a censorship machine or an honesty box?

Artificial Intelligence-powered recognition tools are available which can identify material that is being uploaded by someone who did not create it. When they spot a copyright infringement they will flag up that this content should be paid for or licensed.


Examples of filters in common everyday use:-

  • TurnitIn the academic anti-plagiarism filter used by many universities
  • Lizenzhinweisgenerator which picture desk editors use to check whether photographs are rights-free
  • Audible Magic and Shazam which recognise music and audio, used by SoundCloud et al.

The purpose in these cases is to ensure there is no cheating: students do not rip off other people’s academic work in order to get higher grades without studying themselves, YouTube does not rip off film producers, documentary makers and musicians and news organisations do not rip off photographers. Just as a farmer might leave surplus apples by the roadside with an ‘honesty box’ where passersby can pay for them, the recognition software provides an opportunity to pay for new cultural products.

They are not new but already in use as Sean Sullivan of Finnish cyber security company F-Secure explains:

“There are two different methods: in the signature way of doing it, copyrighted material is uploaded or identified by its owner, and a digital signature is created that the platform uses to identify the material whenever anybody uploads it. So for example, Sony Music has identified its catalogue with YouTube, and if you were to upload a karaoke video with Sony’s music… the ad revenue (if any) will be sent Sony’s way and not yours. Google, YouTube and other tech companies already use upload filters. Other companies use third-party services. The signatures are “fuzzy” and there can be lots of false positives… like if you were to upload a video of your dog doing something cute and there’s some music on the radio in the background.

 There are also child exploitation materials that are very strictly signature based. (Naturally, you cannot upload such material.)

 In the second way, machine learning is used to identify likely copyrighted material and offensive material. It can be used to “teach” algorithms that can identify material that looks like the same, even if it hasn’t seen it before. False positives are a problem. A lot of pink skin in a video could be pornography… or it could be a bunch of pigs. (That was a true story, from years ago, related to Google Images search, I think. It’s difficult to completely automate).”

Internet libertarians and their Big Tech backers also complain that upload filters will  ”make us pay for tiny snippets”, “ban memes”, “outlaw parody”, or “allow authoritarian regimes to censor content”. None of these claims is true or relevant.

The Directive only applies to whole works or substantial parts of them. Under existing EU legislation and the US fair ’use’ clause, snippets are already allowed.“ Fair use“ covers clips of up to 30 seconds in duration and this will not change with the new law. “This is made very clear in the text.“ says DG Connect in its FAQs. Satire and parody are already exempted in existing EU legislation and this will not change. Special rates for educational and library use (protecting cultural heritage online) are set out in the new Copyright Directive. An important case giving photographers’ rights extra protection was decided in the Court of Justice of the European Union on 7 August 2018.

The EU Copyright Directive will make it harder for governments (or anyone) to secretly exercise censorship

Of course, any technology can be abused. But repressive regimes do not need technology in order to be repressive. If anything, the EU Copyright Directive will make it harder for governments (or anyone) to secretly exercise censorship. The software works on signatures, as Sean Sullivan explains, and triggers demands for payment. So the person who is to receive the payment must be made known and then you can check whether they are censors or creators.

For example the Azerbaijani government used Muse Music to complain to YouTube in January 2018 about some of Meydan TV’s news footage which, it was alleged, contained copyrighted images. It was easy for Meydan to prove that they held the rights in these images, and their YouTube channel was restored.

The Turkish government uses secret blocking tools to censor its online critics, but the software also exists to track these censorship attempts. Award-winning campaign group Turkey Blocks has developed open source tools that anyone or any organisation can use and adapt free of charge. The internet freedom community already has tools to beat censors.

Of course if the creators want to share their work for free, they can license it under Creative Commons, or just give it away. But we think journalists and publishers who invest in journalism deserve to be paid

Is Google (owner of YouTube) really concerned about censorship? Or is it the fact that the Copyright Directive will require the platforms (not the users) to pay for sharing content that has been created by someone else. Google had already up to 5th July 2018 spent 31 million dollars lobbying against the Copyright Directive, employing 14 staff in Brussels just for this purpose, and this lobbying continued over the summer. EDRI (the European Digital Rights Initiative, one of the most vocal lobbying groups), is funded by Mozilla and Microsoft and a number of software companies, also the Electronic Frontier Foundation (US NGO funded by Silicon Valley).

As Mogens Blicher Bjerregård of the European Federation of Journalists says,

“Of course if the creators want to share their work for free, they can license it under Creative Commons, or just give it away. But we think journalists and publishers who invest in journalism deserve to be paid“.


So – the publishers,trade unions and musicians want to get paid for their work that is shared online. The owners of the platforms that make billions of dollars from this sharing process don’t want to pay them. As US President Bill Clinton once said in an election campaign “It’s the economy, stupid“.

The issue has split most political parties. VoteWatch has analysed the parliamentary votes on copyright, and I took part in their webinar to learn the details.

European People's Party group (EPP) European Parliament Voting in EP - 5 July 2018

European People’s Party group (EPP) European Parliament Voting in EP – 5 July 2018

Almost all French MEPs voted FOR and almost all German MEPs voted AGAINST. This seems strange because the Rapporteur Axel Voss is German. Maybe Germany’s controversial national policy NetzDG made them scared..? Spain also has national legislation but so far it has proved ineffective, as Stephane Grusso of the Plataforma por la Libertad de Informacion or PDLI explains: “We have had a national copyright law since 2013. Last year a copyright management entity tried to make a news aggregator web called to pay for content it shares, but they refused to pay. Nothing further happened. And also our high court (Tribunal Supremo) took a part of the law down so they have to do it again.”

In general the Greens, Left and Socialists are the most numerous and vocal opponents across the whole parliament and the EPP group (Centre and right) are pro-copyright. The reason why French parties are united in favour of the Copyright Directive seems to be that they are afraid French cultural products (films, music, publications) will lose out to English-language/US competition if the online market is not regulated to reward European cultural creators.

Sitting on the fence, ALDE, the liberal political grouping in the European Parliament sets out a concise summary on its website of the FOR and AGAINST arguments.


S&D Group European Parliament Voting in EP - 5 July 2018

S&D Group European Parliament

Liberalness, of course, has freedom at its root. But this English word ‘free’ is a shape-shifter. It prompted the creation of a website in 2014 called “Free as in speech, or free as in beer?”  The ’gratis’ or ’open source’ option it describes is available to software developers. But I believe it is not appropriate for journalistic products and their publishers, because journalists need to be able to work undercover and protect their confidential sources and whistleblowers. And they need to get paid, so that they can remain independent, not beholden to sponsors or advertisers or state handouts.

MEPs should also take time to look at another short read, the European Charter on Freedom of the Press. They might reflect on the fact that the phrase “free-for-all” is defined in the dictionary as “a dispute, or fight open to all comers and usually with no rules: brawl; also a chaotic situation especially in lacking rules or structure”. Yes, I want freedom – but what kind of freedom, and who will benefit?


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the EU or those mentioned in it. Examples of analysis performed within this article are only examples. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any entity named.