Yesterday, the European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs voted to approve a controversial new copyright directive that, if made into law, could change the internet as we know it. Just one of the many potential terrible results of the directive, which tasks companies to monitor user-submitted content for copyright infringement, could be a radical alteration of games like Minecraft or Roblox.
Voting 15 to 10, committee members adopted Article 13 of the European Union Copyright Directive. The article would require the companies behind storefronts and services that provide user-created content to monitor that content for breaches of copyright. The directive could have effects on companies like Bethesda or Roblox Corporation, whose games allow for user-created mods and content. Failure to “prevent the availability on their services of works or other subject-matter identified by rightholders” could result in companies paying heavy fees.
“Not only would [companies] be jointly liable with the user, but they may be the only person you could find,” author and activist Cory Doctorow told Kotaku via phone. Doctorow is a special advisor to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to “defending civil liberties in the digital world.” “Even if you can find the user, the odds are that a company would have much deeper pockets than the users so the majority of the damages would land with them and not with the person who created the copyrighted material.”
The measures required to moderate user-generated content would likely be extreme, requiring content-sniffing bots to flag potential breaches and moderators to determine the validity of content claims. Picture YouTube’s Content ID systems, except instead of looking for videos, they’re flagging Minecraft skins and Wikipedia articles. With moderation difficult and failure costly, game companies could take unprecedented measures to avoid being held liable for breaches. While this could include disabling user-generated content, it might also encourage licensing deals with rights holders such as Disney.
“If you’re EA or Blizzard, you can just go to an IP holder and strike a deal,” Doctorow said. “It would carve out liability if you do good-faith moderation, and that will be your private deal with Disney. But it would also mean that once someone has the deal, starting a competitor becomes effectively impossible.”
This sort of digital calcification has happened before. As internet radio stations rose in popularity, the royalty fees for music eventually grew steep enough that only a few services could afford to legally operate. An internet dotted with upstart stations became dominated into monoliths like Spotify and Pandora. Shifting licensing deals on movie streaming platforms has fractured where certain shows and movies can be viewed. Services like Netflix, unable to provide a consistent catalogue, have doubled down on self-produced content as rights holders plan to start their own streaming services. Exclusive deals between video game storefronts and intellectual property titans could have a similar effect, limiting the scope of where certain content can be found and preventing other services from competing with established companies who secure exclusive deals.
The directive has other potential effects as well. Trolls and griefers might consider filing copyright claims en masse. These claims could limit creators from posting their content until a moderator could assess the validity of the claim. Embittered copyright claims on YouTube content are already a reality and the prospect of trolls unleashing claims to sabotage mod creators or server hosts is chilling.
And, of course, there’s also the very real threat that your favorite service might decide that compliance with the law is too costly to be feasible, and shut down. Kotaku reached out to providers of games with large amounts of user content such as Roblox and VR Chat but did not receive comment in time for publication. When ask how the directive might affect storefronts and games like Minecraft, Microsoft declined to comment.
The committee’s vote brings the directive one step closer to a reality. The next step is another vote in the wider European Parliament that will likely take place in July, although it might be delayed until after their summer recess, which lasts from July 25 to August 21. The Parliament would vote on the directive, possibly relying on a process known as a trilogue, in which members of parliament would enter a private meeting with national government representative to finalize the language of the directive before a plenary vote.
It is possible that the directive will be voted down. As the Internet has become more ubiquitous, it’s become less politically prudent to vote in favor of legislation that affects it negatively. Last year in the United States, FFC Chair Ajit Pai lead a vote to end net neutrality. The vote was so unpopular that senators voted to reinstate protections that were set to be repealed, although it remains to be see if the House of Representatives will follow suit. Public pressure and advocacy campaigns could lead members of Parliament to think twice before voting yes.
“I’m not optimistic or pessimistic about it, but that doesn’t matter,” Doctorow said. “If I think there’s a tiny chance that this will pass, it’s so catastrophic that we have to fight like hell.”