Survival of the MemesBy
On March 26, 2019, the European Parliament approved a controversial set of copyright reforms known as the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. Two of the new rules brought more than 100,000 protesters into the streets over the weekend before the vote. They joined the five million who had already posted their opposition in online petitions.
The member states will now be polled for their approval, and everyone will have two years to implement the directive. Resistance from the opponents focuses on two new internet rules: Article 11, called the “link tax,” and Article 13, the “upload filter.” On venturebeat.com, Paul Sawers explained the “two facets of the directive that have caused the internet to freak out:
“Article 11 (link tax) stipulates that websites pay publishers a fee if they display excerpts of copyrighted content—or even link to it. Article 13 (upload filter) would effectively make digital platforms legally liable for any copyright infringements on the gathering platform. Some fear that it would stop people from being able to share content—even GIF-infused memes—on social networks.”
WHAT GETS FILTERED?
A news aggregator like Google News might not survive the specific details of Article 11. At this point, Google has noted the legal uncertainty of the link tax: “The details matter, and we look forward to working with policy-makers, publishers, creators, and rights holders.” Four days prior to the vote, European Wikipedias went off the air for a day to protest rules that would be a “net loss to free knowledge.”
With memes, the problem isn’t knowing how the so-called upload filters will work. The BBC quotes Kathy Berry, a senior attorney at Linklaters, who said more details about enforcement are needed. “While Article 13 may have noble aims, in its current form it functions as little more than a set of ideals, with very little guidance on exactly which service providers will be caught by it or what steps will be sufficient to comply.”
Critics point out that internet memes and GIFs mainly rely on copyrighted photos, scenes, and quotes. Rule 13 is so vague that it could apply to even the smallest postings of copyrighted material to sites like Facebook and YouTube.
The European Parliament claims that memes would be excluded from the directive because they appear under provisions for “quotation, criticism, review, caricature, parody or pastiche.” What they don’t explain is how the rule is supposed to work with a blanket filter.
HOW IMPORTANT ARE MEMES?
Merriam-Webster defines a meme as “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media.”
A visit to Facebook will yield a stream of these, from the misanthropic missives of Grumpy Cat and comic epithets like “Don’t grow up; it’s a trap” to disaster videos of the “hold my beer and watch this” crowd. How much would we lose without them?
If we look at the etymology of the word and the person responsible for its internet variation, the meme becomes more than just a conduit for ephemeral humor.
The word “meme” is generally credited to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, he tried to define a “unit of cultural transmission.” Dawkins borrowed from the Greek mimeme (something imitated) and applied it to “a form of cultural propagation, which is a way for people to transmit social memories and cultural ideas to each other. Not unlike the way that DNA and life will spread from location to location, a meme idea will also travel from mind to mind.”
This idea of the meme as a genetic mechanism in the DNA of the internet is important. It brings to mind other kinds of memes that get repeated online. A framed copy of the Kandinsky quote “Art is the child of its times” can be a useful reminder. Kafka’s dark summary “The meaning of life is that it ends” isn’t amusing but certainly deserving more thought than Grumpy Cat’s confession that, when a little bird said it was your birthday, “I ate it.”
Memes can alter the course of a war (the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the 9-year-old girl running from a napalm attack in Vietnam) or focus worldwide attention on a distant crisis (the photo of the 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Turkey). A snippet of cell phone video can guillotine a political career (Sen. George Allen’s “macaca moment” or Gary Hart’s “monkey business” photo). So not all memes are ephemeral or funny. They’re a “unit of cultural transmission” that can have rippling consequences. They’ve become essential to the internet’s structure.
The directives from the European Parliament have been reworked and rewritten numerous times already, but it seems there’s still more work to be done regarding plans for copyright law in the 21st Century.