The copyright law approved on Wednesday by the European Parliament in Strasbourg has an unmistakable logic to it: the online giants will have to pay royalties, which will pad the coffers of the media giants.
Wednesday’s vote sends a clear signal to regular Internet users as well: copyright, just like property, is sacred. The law ended up not featuring the significant changes demanded by many MEPs to Articles 11 and 13, aimed at mitigating the punitive character of the law. The battle lines were drawn between web platform capitalism on one side and old media capitalists on the other.
Obviously, platform capitalism doesn’t actually question the notion of private property, but it considers content as raw material for a business that exploits people’s curiosity and their desire to communicate with others like them in order to take possession of their data. Accordingly, a strong concept of copyright may slow down such online revenue streams. On the other side of the argument, we find a concept of communication that requires companies acting as intermediaries between the public and reality.
However, the gradual development of this basic conflict has not yet led to a serious questioning of the hegemony of platform capitalism that has arisen in recent decades.
In the end, one hears a hollow ring—like the clinking of counterfeit coins—in the positions taken by those who see Wednesday’s vote as the long-awaited recognition of the value of intellectual work that had been belittled by high-tech multinationals.
For many years now, the copyright laws currently in force have ratified the fact that copyright is, for all intents and purposes, a property right held by publishing companies, record companies, film producers, etc.: the share of the revenue actually going into the pockets of individual creators is next to nothing, except for those creators who happen to be in a strong bargaining position.
Accordingly, writing about “cultural labor rights” being secured through the notion of copyright (as does Giulio Rapetti, known as Mogol, the president of the SIAE, the Italian Society of Authors and Editors) is much like driving at night with no headlights: something that only a disturbed person would do, who stubbornly ignores how things actually work in the real world. At most, we can muster some sympathy for this type of nostalgic invocation of a state of affairs that disappeared altogether over four decades ago.
In the current situation, faced with the almighty dominance of established cultural and entertainment businesses, it has been more and more the case that musicians, writers, bloggers and “cultural workers” have decided to seek alternative business models to the dominant models, ones adapted to the pervasiveness of the Internet, which allows models of content distribution and diffusion that are completely different from the traditional ones. A crucial factor here is the widespread and intractable habit by Internet users worldwide (numbering in the billions) of ignoring copyright laws altogether and freely sharing the content they come across in their wanderings online.
The conflict that has taken center stage in recent weeks, and which came to a head in Wednesday’s vote, is a clash between different business models and economic approaches, which in many ways represent alternative options. On one hand, the Internet giants such as Google or Facebook, making their profits through advertising, who are pushing for the free circulation of content, which has the role of capturing the attention of Internet users so the platform companies can take possession of their personal data, including information about their Internet use (sites visited, various data on their cultural consumption), then process it, package it and sell it in the form of Big Data.
On the other side of the divide we find the companies that have always sold content, claiming indisputable property rights to it. The Internet has unfortunately undermined their economic power altogether and has rendered them of marginal importance for the constant flow of content online.
Thus, one side is that of the companies that are making enormous profits from users’ personal data, and the other side is the information and entertainment companies that are demanding a redistribution of the profits made online. The Strasbourg vote sided with the latter; however, now begins the long road toward rendering the law operational, in which the clashes between these two interest groups will likely be no holds barred.
Certainly, the law passed on Wednesday expresses a certain change in the spirit of the times, already highlighted by the conflict between Donald Trump and the Silicon Valley “cosmopolitans,” or by the claims by some national governments that they should be able to monitor Internet activities. Google, Facebook and the others will adapt to the new zeitgeist. They will make truces and compromises on particular issues, because none of the contenders in these clashes would ever dream of actually questioning “the system” itself. It will be up to users and content producers to make their own voices heard in Strasbourg, and to cause an actual and undeniable “system error.” At that point, the machine will have to be reset, and everything will start anew.