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The Death of Memes?

Nathan Thornton explores the implications of the EU’s controversial new copyright law, Article 13

Whether it’s your Aunt Susan posting cringeworthy minion memes on Facebook, or your little brother posting videos of himself trying to do Fortnite dances in his bedroom to Instagram, everyone loves memes. Defined as “an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non genetic means”, the humble meme has become an integral part of 21st century Internet culture – almost every memorable moment is a target for the meme treatment. However, you might have to delete those supposedly harmless pictures off of your phone, as the EU recently passed the controversial Article 13, quickly dubbed the “Meme Killer”

The European Union Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, to give it its full name, was designed to update copyright laws for the digital age. Article 13 in particular would require web giants to automatically filter copyrighted material such as songs, images and videos – unless it has been specifically licensed. First introduced in June earlier this year, it passed by 438 votes to 226 with 39 abstentions in the European Parliament on September 12 2018.

Throughout the process the article faced fierce opposition from a number of large internet corporations such as Youtube and Google, with the latter reportedly spending up to $36 million on lobbyists to derail the process and scrap the article. Nonetheless, it was approved by the EU Parliament, causing the debate and criticism to rage on over social media and other Internet platforms.

A recent popular meme – a video of a monkey getting a haircut

The main criticism of the article is that it will limit freedom of expression on the Internet. Many argue that software employed to filter out copyrighted material will not be able to recognise parody, such as memes. The basis of Fair Use states that if copyrighted material is used in a transformative manner, it is legal. However it is highly unlikely that this software will be able to detect this. Memes are often based on clever interpretations of copyrighted material, which are now likely to fall foul of Article 13.

One key figure who was outspoken against Article 13 was popular YouTuber Pewdiepie. The Swede, real name Felix Kjellberg, has been making videos on the site since 2010, and has since then become the most subscribed content creator, with over 66 million subscribers and over 18 billion views. Kjellberg has to this day maintained his popularity, by primarily making videos commenting on other YouTube videos and joking about memes.

On his video “Memes Will Get Banned!” published in June 2018, he described the Internet as “a stable ecosystem” based on “sharing of ideas” that “benefits everyone involved” As a negative side effect of the huge outreach his videos have, Kjellberg constantly has to deal with copyright claims on his video, where he has to plead his case to a body from YouTube to keep the video up. Article 13 will remove the option for this, making it harder still for Kjellberg to produce the content he does. He has been a fierce opponent to the proposed article.

Famous YouTuber Pewdiepie

The other side of the argument has been mainly supported in popular media by members of the music industry. For example Sir Paul McCartney penned a letter to MEPs urging them to vote in favour of the article. “Today,” he said “some user-upload content platforms refuse to compensate artists and all music creators fairly for their work while they exploit it for their own profit.”

 

This argument comes back to the basics of all copyright law, and focuses on how free use of copyrighted material can jeopardise someone’s livelihood. The former Beatles member argues that it is unfair that content creators online can profit off of others’ work and creative expression, when that is the only way they can make money.

So where are we really, in the months following the passing of Article 13? No one knows for sure yet, as adjustments are yet to be implemented. And while “The Death of Memes” might be a tad hyperbolic, it is undeniable that huge change lie ahead for the future of the Internet as we know it.

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