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EU copyright law
illustration Marianne Wilson

Here’s what you need to know about the EU’s proposed ‘ban on memes’

The European Union is voting on a law that could completely change how we share things online

Memes just make life a little better. They make us laugh, cringe and tag our messiest friends, but that’s not all: memes have become a distinctly millennial form of communication. Whether we’re using them to cloak discussions of mental health in a thin veil of humour or reworking their punchlines into protest slogans, memes are a valuable component of our new, digital language.

But now, seemingly, they could be under threat. The European Parliament last year approved a controversial Directive on Copyright, formally known as the European Union Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. It’s essentially a proposal to modernise copyright law and ensure that creators are paid fairly for their work, which sounds reasonable in principle. Yet, there’s one hotly-contested articles – Article 13, dubbed the ‘meme ban’ – which has sparked concern amongst digital rights activists, prompting them to send a grand total of four million letters to EU legislators.

Some people are continuing to fight the directive. Despite being approved by Parliament there are still several steps to be passed before it’s officially adopted, and an upcoming debate today (January 17) could see new pushback. Even if the directive is ultimately passed, EU member states are given time to implement the law and some degree of freedom as to how it’s adopted. Sound confusing? It is, so to help you out we’ve broken everything you need to know into handy, bite-size chunks.


The directive is made up of 17 articles in total, but one in particular is causing chaos: Article 13. The current rule is that big platforms such as YouTube and Instagram report copyrighted content whenever it’s flagged, but this article could shift the onus onto these companies to filter and remove the content themselves. Amendments are continuously being made to the directive, but Wired recently highlighted that an early version said companies should use ‘recognition technologies’ – in other words, automatic filters.

YouTube recently explained that it already has tools to help content creators identify copyright violations. However, CBO Robert Kyncl noted that the vast majority of creators state when reporting the violation that they would rather have a cut of its revenue than outright removal. The directive could essentially abolish this option by prompting platforms to introduce an algorithmic filter, which would automatically block copyrighted material from being uploaded in the first place. Goodbye, reaction videos!


Content creators of all kinds should be keeping tabs on this, especially as the scope of ‘copyrighted material’ is so vast – everything from GIFs and photographs to full songs and videos technically fall under its definition, but meme accounts in particular are being identified as one of the biggest potential targets. “Of course I’m concerned about Article 13,” Poundland Bandit tells Dazed, whose famous ‘starter pack’ memes you’ve definitely used to take a cheeky dig at your most predictable pals in the past. “It’d fuck me, basically.”

Not only is he concerned that the internet could harm the creative freedom of people worldwide using it as a tool to share opinions and resources, he explains that his ‘starter pack’ format could be the first to be picked off if the directive were to pass. “I make the starter packs to observe a certain kind of person, so I have to use photos of certain brands, movies, music so people get what that kind of person is like. If I couldn’t use those images any more I’d essentially be doing a game of fucking charades over Instagram!”


Well, yes – Instagram is well-known for its apparent phobia of female nipples, whereas YouTube has previously been accused of cracking down on queer creators while giving neo-nazis a free pass. The current rule is that flagged content is way more likely to get removed, and unsurprisingly Poundland explains that people have been “cut deep” by his memes in the past. “They’ve tried to mouth off in the comments and then they’ve been embarrassed, so they’ve just reported the post.”

But activists are concerned that censorship is likely to be heightened even further. Julian Starke, French Director of the anti-Article 13 ‘Create. Refresh’ campaign states: “I believe that Article 13 has the potential to censor us, as it effectively bans us from posting our work online. I am concerned that creativity for independent creators will be stifled; we won’t protect copyright by censoring them. We must help culture to move forward by sampling and reusing creative material with a personal approach.”

"We’ve been working to stop copyright breaking the Internet for almost 30 years. Article 13 is the biggest threat we've seen in that time.


It should probably come as no surprise that there’s one key driver behind the directive: cash. Campaign group #saveyourinternet highlights that the directive will allow the internet’s biggest platforms to dominate the web, stating simply: “Only platforms with deep pockets will be able to comply with the Article 13 requirements.” Small businesses could be punished financially with obstacles that big businesses can afford to hurdle, leading to yet more online inequality.

This idea of the internet being unequal has long dominated digital rights conversations – last year in America the Federal Communications Commission repealed ‘net neutrality’, which stipulates that all online data be treated equally with no exception. Activist groups are similarly worried that the directive could have terrible consequences. When Dazed reached out to non-profit organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation for comment, a spokesperson simply responded: "We’ve been working to stop copyright breaking the Internet for almost 30 years. Article 13 is the biggest threat we've seen in that time.”


Very, very bad things. Unless you’re an influencer continuously churning out new content – the bulk of which is likely sponsored, a category which could produce a grey area of sorts for the directive – the likelihood is that your Instagram is filled with the things you love. Whether you’re into dank memes, obscure art or cult film stills, the directive could essentially dictate what you can and can’t post. The worst-case scenario is that the algorithmic filters come into play, introducing yet another layer of censorship for young creators to overcome – and the onus switching to platforms themselves is likely to result in harsher policing.


The European Parliament may have approved the law, but the final vote on whether or not it’s passed won’t take place until Spring this year. What that means is that there’s still time to think this over, to campaign, write to legislators and learn more about the proposed directive – although the frequent amendments might make it difficult to keep up.