CopyBuzz Launch @ re:publica: Interview with Markus Beckedahl
Markus Beckedahl is founder and Editor-in-Chief of netzpolitik.org, the leading Net policy and digital rights blog in the German-speaking world. He is also a founder of re:publica.
Glyn Moody: When and how did you first become aware of copyright as an important area?
Markus Beckedahl: At the end of the 90s, I began to occupy myself with Net policy and in the context of the [2001 EU Copyright Directive] debate, and as a result of Napster, I naturally realised how central copyright law can be for a digital society. Then the debate about copyright enforcement [IPRED] began, and the demands of the copyright lobby were becoming ever more acute and endangering our fundamental rights ever more.
GM: How important was copyright as a topic in the early days of Netzpolitik.org?
MB: The Copywar was a central network policy topic in the middle of the noughties, and played a central role in the early days of netzpolitik.org. More broadly, debates about software patents, which in turn had great impact on open source software, were a related issue.
The central role of copyright law has since declined somewhat in our reporting. This is due to the fact that new Internet policy debates became more relevant. On the other hand, there was also time to breathe after the successful fight against ACTA [Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement], which stopped copyright enforcement extremism.
GM: What do you think are the most important copyright stories you have covered on Netzpolitik? What about when Deutsche Bahn [Germany’s rail company] accused you of copyright infringement for publishing one of its internal memos.
MB: The Deutsche Bahn “cease and desist” action was not directly as a result of copyright infringement, but because of the betrayal of business and company secrets. And this danger still exists, since we have no improved legislation that protects journalists against such things, and Germany is still a developing country in the field of whistleblower protection.
I don’t have one significant story in particular, but we covered ACTA very intensively from the beginning to the happy ending, and indeed played a part in causing the agreement to fail.
GM: What are your thoughts on the new EU Copyright Directive?
MB: The freedom of panorama is one example of how far away from reality copyright law can be. Hardly anybody understands why you can take photographs of certain things in a street scene and then use them, but not others.
The Leistungsschutzrecht [the “link tax”] has already failed to work in Germany and leads instead to legal uncertainty, especially for small producers and start-ups.
I think the upload filter is the most dangerous idea in the whole [EU copyright] reform. The idea may be understandable, but the consequences for fundamental rights are massive, and upload filters can be a key element of a censorship and control infrastructure. As a result, many legitimate remixes with satirical or political content can be automatically deleted and thus their distribution hindered.
GM: Germany already has experience with its Leistungsschutzrecht link tax: why are German publishers so keen on it, despite the fact it just doesn’t work (as Spain has also shown)?
MB: The Leistungsschutzrecht [LSR] was created in Germany as a result of pressure from the publishing lobby. I am myself a publisher on netzpolitik.org, and have never seen any sense in it. If you do not want Google & Co to display snippets, simply change the robots.txt and disable search engines. The LSR is not successful in Germany either. This did not prevent Günther Oettinger, our German specialist for everything with zeros and ones, from exporting it as a “success” to be emulated. [Perhaps] according to the motto: it’s got to work somewhere, somehow?
GM: What do you think will happen with the upload filter idea, which threatens to chill creativity and build continuous surveillance and censorship into many Web sites?
MB: It’s true that today’s systems can recognise existing images, even if not 100%. But as soon as these are changed, by photomontages or meme filters, they fall outside the usual framework. Writing about such cases is made more difficult because, depending on the degree of recognition, the upload filters would no longer allow through such posts with [modified] images.
And what do the filters mean for our fundamental rights? When automated filters search all content on the web – somebody must ultimately know who uploads what – they automatically touch on the rights of the users. Freedom of expression is in danger when artificial intelligence decides whether we can post something or not.
An example from copyright: already, lawyers and courts are debating whether a remix or a satirical contribution represents copyright infringement or freedom of expression. When platforms like Facebook and Google use upload filters, they take this decision in advance – to the detriment of parodies, remixes, quotations and more. Goodbye user-generated content.
GM: Are there any other elements of the proposed EU Copyright Directive you are concerned about?
MB: Where is a right to remix as an additional copyright exception, possibly analogous to the fair use rules from the USA? Why is it perfectly legal in the USA to create and share remixes and memes for political reasons, for reasons of science and satire, while this [remixing] is forbidden in the EU?
GM: German publishers are taking a very unhelpful stance over the EU’s ratification of the Marrakesh treaty for the visually impaired. Why do you think German publishers are resisting so much when there is such wide general support for the treaty?
MB: German publishers are always concerned only with the intensification of copyright, and fight on all fronts against granting any kind of exceptions to that.
GM: Copyright trolls seem a particularly bad problem in Germany: why is that?
MB: The implementation of the EU Copyright Enforcement Directive has created a huge “cease and desist” industry in Germany. Millions of warnings have been sent. The resulting money hardly ever reached the artists, but mainly financed lawyers and rights owners. As a consequence, we have also ended up with the so-called “Störerhaftung” [nuisance liability], so that hardly anyone dares to open their WLAN [for the public to use]. As a result, Germany has hardly any open WLANs. The federal government is currently trying for the third time to reform it. I’d be surprised if they succeed.
GM: What do you see as the main threats to the digital world arising from copyright?
MB: Copyright is complicated and is based on international treaties from the pre-digital era. Nevertheless, this is one of the central laws for the digital age. When copyrights are enforced to the hilt, it’s generally the case that our fundamental rights and thus our freedoms are diminished.
We need reforms and we shouldn’t just act defensively, but we should demand more rights for all. For example, with the RechtaufRemix.org campaign, we are calling for an EU copyright exception [for remixing].