I spend a lot of time on the internet, so when I started to see posts like this pop up over the past few days, I was taken aback. You can’t ban memes entirely, can you? The very fabric of the modern internet is woven with memes, either visual or text-based.
As it turns out, the threat of meme prohibition – or at least memes that use copyrighted imagery -- is very real indeed. It’s rooted in a piece of legislation that recently passed in the European Union (EU) known as Article 13.
Article 13 states: “Information society service providers that store and provide to the public access to large amounts of works or other subject-matter uploaded by their users shall, in cooperation with rightholders, take measures to ensure the functioning of agreements concluded with rightholders for the use of their works or other subject-matter or to prevent the availability on their services of works or other subject-matter identified by rightholders through the cooperation with the service providers.”
Once you’re done parsing that beast of a sentence, the directive seems more than reasonable. It protects copyright holders, ensuring that content creators are paid fairly. It also helps curb theft of intellectual property. All good stuff, yes?
But here is where it gets a bit more complicated. The directive also states that service providers must implement automated copyright-checking software to prevent the upload of protected materials. While the original intent of the legislation is to prevent streaming of pirated music and videos, the law’s language includes protections on images, audio, video, compiled software, code and even language.
That means trouble for the beloved meme. These ever-evolving, copy-pasted, poorly formatted, pixelated iterations upon iterations of inside jokes have become a major part of the internet experience. From screenshots of Drake videos to stock photos of some dude checking out his non-girlfriend (or my personal favorite, classical art memes), many memes do use protected content – albeit usually in a satirical way. In any event, memes help capture the zeitgeist of today’s digital world, and they may be on the brink of extinction.
Beyond putting a nail in the coffin of meme culture, this directive has wider implications for brands. Copyright-scanning software will not come cheaply, which means smaller brands and start-ups may face a costly barrier to entry to the internet marketplace. This raises similar concerns as the fight for Net Neutrality did in the States: What is the impact of reducing access to a means of communication to those who can afford to pay top dollar?
Sadly, this comes at a time when brands are finally starting to get memes right in marketing and social media. We’ve come a long way from the questionable Healthcare.gov “doge” meme. Brands such as Wendy’s and Jimmy John’s are showing deftness with this form of expression, creating deeper connections with target audiences. I, for one, will mourn the loss of the bizarre but oddly charming memes of everyone’s favorite late-night food pick, Denny’s.
While the legislation is EU-centric, it is bound to have an impact on content in the U.S. and elsewhere. Consider the way brands have had to respond to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) across the globe. Article 13 will be difficult and time-consuming to enforce, and it won’t become law until it is passed by the European Parliament. There is currently no vote on the issue scheduled, but it is likely to take place before January 2019. With that in mind, make sure to get those memes posted before they potentially disappear forever.