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The Copyright Directive

In this feature Mark Sutherland discusses the European Copyright Directive in detail, and looks at the vital actions that must take place to protect UK music industry in the post-Brexit environment.

Published: 26 April 2021 | 12:13 PM Updated: 22 October 2021 | 12:47 PM

It’s a date that should have gone down in the annals of music industry history.

On 26 March, 2019, the European Parliament finally approved the European Copyright Directive, rewarding years of copyright reform campaigning by a broad coalition of artists, songwriters and trade bodies, including the MU.

The move – which included backing for the ‘controversial’ (to Google anyway) Article 17 clause, ensuring platforms would become responsible for copyrighted material uploaded to their platforms – was greeted with joy by the industry, sparking celebrations in Brussels and London, while the cover of Music Week declared, simply: Victory!

That legislation is now being implemented across Europe. But in the UK, the Government has declared that – thanks to Brexit – it has “no plans” to do the same here, even though the UK’s EU departure date was already known as the Government pushed for the Directive to go through.

An industry bewildered by the Government’s antipathy

“It's yet another frustration about the way the Government has shafted the music industry in their scramble to ‘get Brexit done’,” sighs Dave Rowntree, Blur drummer and one of the leading artist campaigners for the Directive. “The Copyright Directive was one of the ways of keeping up with today's lightning-fast changes in technology. We've explained all this to ministers a thousand times, so I can only assume when Boris Johnson said ‘Fuck business’, he meant ours.”

Rowntree’s anger is reflected across an industry bewildered by the Government’s antipathy towards legislation that would not only significantly boost the beleaguered post-Covid entertainment sector, but which was also enthusiastically championed by previous Conservative administrations.

“The desire for a harder Brexit than perhaps had originally been envisaged has overtaken the government,” says Labour MP Kevin Brennan, a member of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) Committee and a key Copyright Directive campaigner.

“You can see that in the fact that there was no effort made to conclude a reasonable deal for reciprocal touring for musicians in Europe after Brexit. The same thing applies here, but the government may also be thinking ahead to trade deals with America – and the demands from the massive US-based tech companies in relation to that.”

We cannot afford to fall behind other territories

Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously decried the Copyright Directive as “terrible for the internet” but, during the recent DCMS Music Streaming Inquiry evidence sessions, Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage did not completely rule out bringing in similar legislation here, telling MPs: “We are looking very carefully at the implementation of the Directive in Europe. Leaving the EU gives us the opportunity to be able to do that and decide how we move forward.”

However, in the same meeting, Tim Moss, CEO of the Intellectual Property Office, described current UK copyright law as ‘fit for purpose’, something that left MU Assistant General Secretary Naomi Pohl “dismayed”.

“If copyright law is not updated to reflect changes in music distribution and communication, then over time our members' income from recorded music is likely to decline,” Pohl warns. “We cannot afford for the UK's music industry to fall behind other territories in terms of how it treats and pays creators and performers. We must nurture talent and ensure that a career as a professional musician remains a viable option in the streaming era.”

Strong copyright and IP protections are mission critical

Implementation of the Directive in Europe has not been without its problems, especially in Germany, where there have been arguments over the use of upload filters. But with the 7 June deadline fast approaching, it won’t be long before UK musicians are operating on an unlevel playing field compared to their continental counterparts.

“What we need to do as a sector is convince the Government that music and the music industry is a really major national asset – and it is,” says Crispin Hunt, songwriter and chair of the Ivors Academy. “We are the second biggest exporter of music in the world. If they throw that away, they are throwing away Britain’s creative future – and I don’t think they’d be stupid enough to do that.”

UK Music CEO Jamie Njoku-Goodwin echoes those views, saying, “Strong copyright and IP protections are mission critical if we want to make the UK the best country in the world to create, produce and enjoy music”.

“The Government should act to make sure that the UK is not left behind when it comes to protecting the work of our great British talent,” he adds.

Unfortunately, as with sorting out visa-free post-Brexit touring, the Government seems in no hurry to do so. Naomi Pohl reveals the MU – part of the successful #FixStreaming campaign with the Ivors Academy – is launching a new petition to keep the pressure on and other trade bodies intend to keep lobbying the Government.

It’s possible, and it’s also essential

But the big question is, after the original, years-long battle against the corporate might of Google to secure the original Copyright Directive, do campaigners really have the stomach for another fight?

“Yes,” declares Crispin Hunt. “The argument’s already been made. We’ve already honed all of our positions and the safe harbour issue is now playing out on a global scale and across much more than copyright. So it’s possible, and it’s also essential.”

And Dave Rowntree has no doubt about what’s at stake.

“If the Government doesn't change course, Brexit will be cataclysmic for the bottom tier of the industry,” he says. “And, of course, without that bottom tier, there will be no future Blur or Oasis – and our industry will be world-beating no more.”

So, the next few months will prove vital for attempts to get copyright reform back on the agenda. And, if that happens, everyone in the music industry will be hoping that history can repeat itself – and that 26 March 2019 isn’t only remembered as the date of another false dawn.

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