The EU has ratified a new law that is designed to protect copyright, but it has some serious potential consequences for online content, in particular, user-generated stuff uploaded to sites like YouTube and SoundCloud.

It's a section of the EU Copyright Directive that covers how online services should deal with high-value copyrighted content. It's been 18 years since the EU last looked at copyright and, of course, things have changed remarkably in that time.

"This is really only an updating of copyright law for the digital age of today, says Georgia Shriane, senior associate solicitor in the commercial and technology team at law firm Boyes Turner. "It's designed to prevent pirating of original copyright material online, where posts can go viral very quickly infringing the creator’s rights."

Essentially, it will make sites responsible for everything that gets uploaded. As now, the responsibility won't be on the user. But that introduces several other challenges for sites that rely on user-generated content (UGC).  

Who will Article 13 apply to?

The EU document refers to 'online content sharing service providers' but it makes clear that the target of the legislation is those who exploit this kind of material for profit. There are numerous exemptions such as cloud storage services while it's also clear that the phrase "not-for-profit online encyclopedia" is designed to ensure that Wikipedia is exempt.

Communication services are also marked as being exempt, but while it's one thing sending a copyrighted video to someone on WhatsApp, it's another to send it to all your followers on Twitter. Memes have been a particular topic of debate but apparently, they will be allowed to survive (providing they're funny).

As Shriane points out, the directive restates that copyrighted content is able to be used for the purposes of criticism, parody and pastiche.

The rules also only apply to established sites that have been going more than three years and who have a turnover of more than €10 million (around £8.8 million). 

How will it change things?

Currently, YouTube can use algorithms and other clever sauce to detect copyright content after it has been uploaded, sometimes this can be a long time after upload. And generally your content is not removed, you just can't put advertising against it. 

Under the new rule, YouTube and others would presumably have to check material at the point of upload or close to it - the directive stipulates that sites must make "best efforts" to ensure that copyrighted material is not "made available" and that anything that does appear should be removed quickly - just how quick that is is up for debate.

Article 13 doesn't demand that stuff is filtered at the point of upload, but in our opinion, there wouldn't be another way around the law.

“The onus will be on, for example, the social media platforms to filter their content and ensure that copyright is not breached on their platform," says Shriane.

“This is likely to have some important knock-on costs for social media platforms, as they will need to invest in software that filters content as well as also potentially bringing in additional people to do the actual work of policing and enforcing."

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) puts it: "This is impossible, and the closest any service can come to it is spending hundreds of millions of euros to develop automated copyright filters.

"Those filters will subject all communications of every European to interception and arbitrary censorship if a black-box algorithm decides their text, pictures, sounds or videos are a match for a known copyrighted work. They are a gift to fraudsters and criminals, to say nothing of censors, both government and private."

Crucially, it might not just apply to original work - BBC Radio 1 reported on the potential for new artists to not be discovered if their cover versions of other songs aren't able to be uploaded. 

There's also the question of gaming footage that's uploaded to services such as Twitch. 

The safest way might be for sites to enter into (or strengthen existing) blanket licensing deals with, say, major music labels. But that's a minefield and probably unachievable for many.

Indeed the EFF says these filters could harm European-based sites since they "are unaffordable by all but the largest tech companies, all based in the USA, and the only way Europe's homegrown tech sector can avoid the obligation to deploy them is to stay under ten million euros per year in revenue, and also shut down after three years." 

Who does and doesn't want it? 

Google doesn't like it and claimed that it could "change the web as we know it". Sir Tim Berners-Lee is among those that have warned against it. Some MEPs even claimed they voted for it when they didn't mean to.

Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga are among artists that think it may have a positive impact on royalties.

UK Music is the industry organisation behind the British Music industry, representing organisations such as the BPI, Musicians Union and PRS. It welcomed the move as "a huge step forward for creators, the UK music industry and the millions who love the music we produce."

CEO Michael Dugher added "We are massively grateful to the MEPs who supported us in this fight and voted in favour of the Copyright Directive against a tide of misinformation from our opponents".  

If you thought Article 13 is controversial, Article 11 could be more so. It forces search engines and other aggregators to pay license fees on short snippets of content. Google even shared sample search pages back in January which removed the bits that could potentially fall foul of the legislation. 

How will it apply to the UK after Brexit? 

Currently, who knows how things will work after Brexit. If we have a deal, the legislation will likely be translated into UK law but if there is no deal we understand that it won't apply to the UK. 

You can read Article 13 online should you really want to.