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Musicians busk while tech bosses blog as Europe’s big safe harbour vote looms

By | Published on Friday 7 September 2018

The music industry across Europe continues to shout out loud about value gaps, copyright reforms and articles numbered thirteen, as the next big vote in the European Parliament on the draft new copyright directive looms closer. Yesterday British artists and songwriters gathered outside the HQ of collecting society PRS to busk their protest – outside the HQ of PRS also conveniently doubling up as outside the London offices of big bad Google.

Article thirteen of the draft directive seeks to reform the copyright safe harbour, of course, in a way that would increase the liabilities of websites like Google’s YouTube. The music industry has been lobbying hard for this reform, it arguing that the likes of YouTube have exploited a safe harbour originally intended for internet service providers and server hosting companies to launch a music-on-demand platform without paying market rate royalties.

The music industry’s lobbyists seemed to have the upper hand through many of the negotiations around the new directive, successfully getting safe harbour reform included in the first place, and then having the original draft of article thirteen amended in their favour during subsequent discussions in the European Parliament. But when the whole document went before MEPs in July it was voted down, in no small part because of article thirteen.

Ed Harcourt, Crispin Hunt, Dave Rowntree, Madeleina Kay, Brett Anderson and Newton Faulkner were among the songwriters and musicians who performed a rendition of Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’ in front of Google’s Kings Cross offices yesterday. The sing song was part of a last minute Europe-wide push by the music community to try to ensure MEPs back the directive – and safe harbour reform – when they next consider it all on 12 Sep.

Before the musical protest, cross-sector trade body UK Music explained that the busk outside Google’s offices was intended “to highlight how even the spare change from passers-by brings in more cash than tens of thousands of streams on YouTube”. It added: “At present, some global tech firms, like the Google-owned video platform YouTube, pay just a tiny amount of their multi-billion pound profits to the creators of the music streamed online by millions of music lovers”.

Noting that the music industry’s campaign for safe harbour reform enjoyed support from across the artist community – and not just those busking yesterday morning – UK Music went on: “Paul McCartney is among the stars who have thrown their support behind the campaign and demanded that artists and creators are fairly paid for their work”.

The trade body recalled how “in July, former Beatle Sir Paul called on Euro MPs to back the proposed changes to EU copyright law – specifically article thirteen of the Copyright Directive – which would compel content platforms like YouTube to stop shirking their responsibilities to properly compensate artists for their work. In a heartfelt letter to Euro MPs, Sir Paul warned that without this change the future of the music industry could be put at risk, saying: ‘We need an internet that is fair and sustainable for all'”.

Though just as the protesting musicians gathered outside Google’s offices yesterday morning, someone inside the building pressed send on a big musical announcement. “As part of a YouTube Original special, Paul McCartney will perform a concert live on Paul’s YouTube channel to celebrate the release of his highly anticipated new album ‘Egypt Station'”, the Google company declared. “Paul will perform songs from the new album alongside classics from his Beatles, Wings and solo catalogues”.

The music industry pushing McCartney to the fore as the top celebrity YouTube critic – just as he announces a big partnership with YouTube – nicely illustrates one of the challenges the music industry has had to deal with in recent years. Everyone in the music industry wants YouTube to pay better royalties, but at the same time everyone wants to reach the YouTube audience. Being able to lobby against while continuing to also work with a tech company could be seen as a nice grown-up approach. Though some politicians find it confusing.

And the music industry hasn’t just been laying into Google over YouTube royalties of late either, of course. The music community has also been critical of the web giant’s relentless lobbying in Europe in a bid to derail safe harbour reform. That has included backing and supporting various groups of copyright critics. That’s an approach dubbed by lobbyists as ‘astroturfing’, because it often hides the corporate interests that are being lobbied for by presenting campaigners as a grass roots group of concerned individual citizens.

Though YouTube presented its arguments in a much more open way earlier this week when the firm’s Chief Business Officer Robert Kyncl published a blog post on the matter. After talking up the way the web at large – and YouTube in particular – has removed barriers for grassroots creators, allowing them to reach an audience without placating traditional gate-keepers, Kyncl declared: “I believe this may now be at risk as European policymakers prepare to vote on a new European Copyright Directive on 12 Sep”.

Taking aim at safe harbour reform in particular, he mused on: “In fact, some parts of the proposal under consideration – and in particular the part known as ‘article thirteen’ – potentially undermine this creative economy, discouraging or even prohibiting platforms from hosting user-generated content. This outcome would not only stifle your creative freedom, it could have severe, negative consequences for the fans, the communities and the revenue you have all worked so hard to create”.

Subtly adhering to the narrative presented by article thirteen critics that increasing the liabilities of YouTube constitutes censorship, Kyncl then emotively added: “Growing up behind the iron curtain in communist Czechoslovakia without the openness we now take for granted, I have a deep personal conviction to preserve this freedom”.

He concluded by encouraging the community of creators who have built audiences and businesses via YouTube – which may or may not include a certain Mr McCartney – to shout out in favour of the status quo. “I have made my voice heard here and there’s still time for you to weigh in before 12 Sep”, he concluded. “Every single creator, including you, deserves their say. I hope you will learn more and consider sharing your views on social media and with policymakers”.

There are a lot of YouTube creators to shout about this, though the music industry is hoping that – with the support of the wider creative industries – its people can shout louder. As Kyncl was posting on his blog earlier this week, the bosses of no less than 105 organisations representing European songwriters, composers, journalists, film-makers and other authors signed a letter calling on MEPs to back the copyright directive, including good old article thirteen and the also controversial article eleven.

This round of copyright reform, they wrote, “represents a once in a decade opportunity to improve the situation of authors, thereby strengthening the European creative community and our cultural wealth in the digital era. Europe is the cradle of author’s rights: it must not turn its back on both its historical values and on its creative future in the digital era”.

As the next big vote approaches, it will be interesting to see who can shout the loudest for the longest. And also what impact safe harbour sing songs and pleas of “I grew up under communism, don’t you know” will have when MEPs vote next week. Whichever side wins, presumably McCartney will be booked to headline the celebration party.