The UK Exited the EU—and Is Leaving a ‘Meme Ban’ Behind
Article 13—a controversial piece of copyright legislation that is now called Article 17 but is more colloquially known as “the meme ban”—is no more, in the UK at least. Last week, the country’s minister for universities and science, Chris Skidmore, confirmed that the UK will not implement the EU Copyright Directive after leaving the EU.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
The directive limits how copyrighted content is shared on online platforms. Its most controversial component, Article 13, now Article 17, requires online platforms to stop copyrighted material getting onto their platforms, a demand that many fear could usher in widespread usage of automated filters. This would supposedly direct revenue away from tech giants and towards deserving artists.
Companies that host large amounts of user-generated content—like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook—were particularly against the change, as it placed greater onus on them to police the content on their platforms. Google claimed that the move would “change the web as we know it”; YouTube encouraged a protest hashtag “#saveyourinternet.”
Now, the UK won’t have any part in it. “The United Kingdom will not be required to implement the Directive, and the Government has no plans to do so,” Skidmore responded to a written question in Parliament. “Any future changes to the UK copyright framework will be considered as part of the usual domestic policy process.”
The move amounts to a somewhat bizarre U-turn, as the UK was among the 19 nations that initially supported the law, back in a European Council vote in April 2019. It had every opportunity to stop the directive at the time, says Julia Reda, a former MEP for the Pirate Party Germany.
“As has quite often happened in the Brexit debate, you get the impression that EU legislation just falls from the sky and is imposed on the British people,” she says. “But that’s not the case—the UK has always been a very powerful player in the EU, due to its size, and it would have been able to simply block the adoption of the copyright directive.”
The question then, is why now? “There is a possibility that the UK acted cynically, supporting the Directive in the European policymaking process in anticipation that it would damage the economy of the EU’s digital single market,” says Martin Kretschmer, director of the UK Copyright and Creative Economy Centre at the University of Glasgow.
More likely however, explains Kretschmer, the UK civil service just kept their heads down during the copyright negotiations, unwilling to draw attention at a sensitive moment for the Withdrawal Agreement.
Boris Johnson criticized the law back in March, tweeting that it was “terrible for the internet.” He claimed that it was “a classic EU law to help the rich and powerful” and “a good example of how we can take back control.”
Despite this, it’s difficult to intuit the prime minister’s reasoning. “The government remains committed to high standards of copyright protection, however, our imminent departure from the EU means that the UK will not be required to implement the Copyright Directive,” a spokesperson for the Intellectual Property Office says. “Any future changes to the UK copyright framework will be considered as part of the domestic policy process.”
“It’s hard to tell how much does this decision really has to do with copyright law at all,” says Reda. “And to what extent is it just turning against a law that is deeply unpopular with the population and trying to use the decision not to implement this—which I think is the correct decision in these specific circumstances—as a PR gag.”
As to how the UK will now concretely differ from the EU, it’s difficult to say, because the actual effects of the EU Copyright Directive are up in the air. “It’ll be interesting to see, once this law is implemented in national law, how much it actually changes things” says Kristofer Erickson, associate professor in media and communication at the University of Leeds. ”The UK is staying with the rest of the herd in terms of regulation, rather than adopting a directive which is quite radical and very different from what the rest of the world has.”