The European Union is considering creating a law to make memes illegal if they contain copyright material. The first thing to consider with this statement is that memes that contain copyright material are already illegal, if you don’t have the rights to publish, no?

The difference would be civil versus statutory law. Currently, we have strong copyright laws in Europe where the creator of any work is automatically the copyright holder. UK copyright law, in essence, says you own the rights to something you create (unless you create it for your employer, in which case your employer would own it).

If someone breaches your copyright, you need to take action against them, which means you need to be able to prove that you hold the rights. This can get complicated for works that contain multiple rights. For example, a movie is an original piece of work that will perhaps contain portions of other movies or TV shows, pieces of music and possible artworks created in their own right.

Just because something appears on the internet doesn’t mean it is free for you to use. Just because no one publishes details of copyright ownership with a photo or an article doesn’t mean it is free for you to copy. Someone still owns it, unless it is old enough to be out of copyright.

Here’s what the media is saying about an EU meme ban

How can the law stop illegal memes?

The photo library or the individual photographer whose photo becomes a meme has a right to stop that photo being used without permission. Most people don’t know this, and it doesn’t seem wrong to take a photo that so many other people are publishing.

Meme creation apps exist for us to select photos and create our own memes. Does that mean these apps will now become illegal? Yes and no. The EU’s jurisdiction is limited geographically. Apps created outside the EU will be hard to control.

If one person publishes a copyright-breaching meme on Facebook, who would go after them? Would there be a meme-protection squad? Or will the copyright holder need to file a civil suit? What about every other person who shares the same meme?

Meme - one does not ban memes

With so much content being easily shareable online, and so many users being unaware of copyright rules, there’s no way the law can stop people behaving the way they do.

The answer will be two-fold. First, educate the public as much as possible about copyright rules. Second, work with the large sites like Google Images, Facebook, Twitter et al, and work with them to reduce the amount of copyright-infringing material that is made freely available.

YouTube has been good at this for a while, taking action to prevent publishers making advertising money from the use of videos that contain copyright material.

There’s also a law in Russia that restricts how memes can be used.

Read more: Facebook Breaches European Law’s Privacy Norms, as Per Reports