The Twilight of Copyright, or, How to reform with a hammer

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Nietzsche Archives in Weimar.JPG
Wikimedia sites can only show this picture of Weimar’s Nietzsche Archive because German’s ‘Freedom of Panorama’ law authorizes it. If the building was located in Belgium or France, this would be a copyright infringement. House by David Wen Riccardi-Zhuneed, CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Since July 2013, Dimitar Dimitrov has worked as a Wikimedian in Brussels. In previous blog posts, he has written about his experience with the European Union’s impact on the free knowledge movement. This post is about the EU’s copyright reform proposal. All views are the author’s own; discussion is welcome in the comment section of this blog post.

What happened

The new European Commission is working on a copyright reform proposal this year. In the European Union context, this would most likely mean revamping the 2001 Copyright in the Information Society Directive (InfoSoc Directive). The InfoSoc Directive was produced to make copyright rules work for the internet, and it already grants a number of exceptions (including ‘Freedom of Panorama’). However, these exceptions are optional — and implementing them across member states has led to a legal patchwork, rather than clearing rules that are easily applicable online.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away from the Commission, the European Parliament is working on its own initiative report on the implementation of the InfoSoc Directive. Since the European Parliament can’t propose legislation itself and needs to wait for the Commission to act, that’s how it deals with upcoming issues. The report will recommend legal changes that the Parliament would like to see (and is likely to vote for). The Legal Affairs Committee is responsible for preparing the document and the assigned rapporteur, Felix Reda (Pirate Party, Greens/EFA Group, DE), presented his first draft in January.

The first draft calls for the European Commission to harmonize current exceptions, as well as to introduce new ones. It also tries to strengthen authors’ position vis-à-vis other stakeholders, such as collecting societies or content licensing companies. It calls on public authorities to help foster and safeguard the public domain. Other concrete proposals include: shortening copyright terms to what is the permissible minimum under the Berne Convention (i.e. life plus 50 years, instead of the currently valid minimum of ‘lifelong plus 70 years’); extending the quotation right to cover audiovisual works; introducing an open norm in Europe to mimic the US fair use practice; enshrining the legality of hyperlinking and text & data mining; wider exceptions for education and research; and allowing libraries to lend e-books.


Reactions in Brussels have ranged from “Hell yeah!” to “Hell no!” (the rapporteur herself has assembled a number of comments). There are groups that think that this will never pass because it asks too much, groups that believe they will be unemployed if this passes, groups that think that it doesn’t go far enough — and pretty much anything in between.

Still, we’ve observed a healthy amount of panic about this topic. While the extreme reactions cited above are scary at times, criticism from all sides seems to give this first draft a shot at being seen as reasonable. A strong reaction also has the benefit of generating attention. Attention that topics like copyright don’t always get. And this is the chance to have an in-depth conversation. The digital and content crowds in Brussels have turned into beehives. Everyone is buzzing around, trying to pick up new information and generate traction for one’s own arguments.

What lies ahead

Next, the Committee will examine the draft and gather amendment proposals until 3 March. These will then be reviewed and voted on during committee meetings, before agreed-upon text in its entirety proceeds to a plenary vote. The European Parliament’s own initiative report has mainly two functions. For one, it tries to get the European Parliament to agree on what it wants ahead of the actual proposal by the Commission, thereby strengthening its negotiating position. At the same time, it acts as a bellwether that shows what would be feasible.

The overall expectation is still that the initial proposal will change substantially. All the stakeholder groups will try to knock passages out, propose own wordings or stall the entire process. So it is important that the Wikimedia movement put its weight behind the initiative as such — and support it, focusing on the points we can demonstrate with credibility.

The current version of the report asks the Commission to propose “exempting works produced by the public sector – within the political, legal and administrative process – from copyright protection” (point 5). This corresponds to our demand for free use and re-use of government created works (PDGov). The report draft also proposes “that the use of photographs, video footage or other images of works which are permanently located in public places are permitted” (point 16), which is perfectly in line with our Freedom of Panorama recommendation (FoP).

How you can help

As changes to the current version are unavoidable, we must make sure to defend our position throughout the discussions in the Committee and in the European Parliament at large. The Free Knowledge Advocacy Group EU is currently contacting members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to explain why the changes we’re talking about are not extreme but necessary. We’re trying to make sure that European Chapters as well as individual volunteers are involved and equipped with the most relevant arguments and most effective answers.

If you would like to help, please contact us to:

  • Reach out to relevant MEPs from your country/region [1]
  • Help us with the mailing campaign to address the EP at-large
  • Participate in upcoming events in Brussels (“Freedom of Panorama Workshop” and “Meet the Authors”, both still in planning with dates TBC)
  • We’re looking for several people who would be willing to spend 2-4 weeks in Brussels in 2015 as a “Visiting Weasel” to help with local activities (scholarship possible) [2]

We’ve been given a chance to change European copyright law. Let’s give it all we have!

Dimitar Dimitrov, Free Knowledge Advocacy Group EU

[1] As things are very dynamic, please make sure to get in touch with us before you contact a MEP so we can give you the latest news and coordinate our efforts in the most effective way.
[2]Details like funding and timing not clear yet. Please share your interest in participating.

Also note that the title of this post is inspired by ‘Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer’ by Friedrich Nietzsche

Archive notice: This is an archived post from, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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