What is the Copyright Directive?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 05 February 2020
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The Copyright Directive is a legislative action undertaken by the European Union to oblige member nations to comply with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaty on copyright, passed to address concerns about copyright with respect to the Internet and other technology. The directive was passed in 2001, and a number of member nations had difficulty complying with the directive, triggering lawsuits in some cases as the deadline for implementation expired. This piece of legislation was one among a number of similar legislative acts passed around the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s to change the scope of copyright law in response to newly developed technology.

Known formally as Directive 2001/29/EC on the harmonization of copyright and related rights in the information society, the Copyright Directive includes clauses defining copyright, setting out rights for copyright holders, and discussing exceptions to copyright law intended to allow for fair use and other situations. One notable exception was a law barring people from prosecution for transmission of copyrighted material, allowing Internet service providers to avoid prosecution when their users violate copyright law and transmit the infringing material over the Internet.


This European Union directive also discusses the use of technology to prevent or limit copyright infringement, barring the sale of devices designed to break copyright or to assist people in violating copyright protections. It also bars the use of techniques intended to circumvent technological protections against copyright violation, such as the copy protection technology used on some compact discs and digital video discs. These clauses in the Copyright Directive protected technology designed to secure copyright and restricted the production, distribution, and use of technology developed for infringing purposes.

Some aspects of the Copyright Directive proved highly controversial. Activists for fair use feared that the limitations were poorly defined, potentially setting up situations where a person using copyrighted material legally could be penalized for it. Critics also expressed concern about the limitations on technology in the directive and encouraged individual EU member nations to implement the directive with care. This led to significant delays as member nations attempted to address these issues.

Public interest and awareness in fair use issues in the 2000s led to the formation of a number of organizations working to distribute information about how copyright law works and to challenge laws appearing to infringe on fair use and other rights. These organizations are sometimes involved in suits questioning aspects of the copyright directive.


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