Viewing a Web page isn't copyright infringement, top EU court rules

The case could have made infringers out of millions of ordinary Internet users across the EU

Europeans can continue browsing the Web without fear of breaking copyright law, Europe's top court has determined in a landmark ruling.

The legality of this common practice came into question in Europe as a result of a years-long tussle involving U.K. newspaper publishers, a public relations association and a company that aggregates and redistributes news articles.

The intent of the legal challenge was never to target individuals who browse the Web and read periodicals online, but, as the legal strategy was formulated, that ended up being the possible consequence.

Luckily for European Internet users, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled Thursday against the U.K. Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA), a body set up by newspapers publishers for collectively licensing newspaper content.

The NLA started proceedings against the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) in 2010. The public relations professionals subscribe to a media monitoring service offered by the Meltwater Group that uses key words to monitor press articles published on the Internet. Those reports were made available online.

However, the NLA took the view that PRCA members who used the tool were required to obtain a license to use it. While Meltwater agreed to enter into a Web database licence with the NLA, the PRCA maintained that their members didn't need a separate license to view the reports via their Web browsers.

The NLA disagreed and took the case to court, arguing that PRCA members were required to obtain a licence or consent from the NLA in order to receive Meltwater's service. The publishers pointed out that when people visit a Web page, two copies of it are automatically and temporarily stored on their computers -- one on screen and another cached in the hard disk -- and that doing without a license violated EU's Copyright Directive.

The publishers won two cases in the U.K. But in April last year U.K.'s Supreme Court decided that these temporary copies don't infringe on copyright.

The Supreme Court observed that the case essentially concerned the question whether Internet users committed copyright infringement while viewing Web content without the authorization of rights holders.

"Making mere viewing, rather than downloading or printing the material an infringement could make infringers of millions of ordinary Internet users across the EU," the Supreme Court said at the time, adding that it has never been an infringement of EU or English law to view or read an infringing article in physical form.

While giving its opinion in the matter, the Supreme Court decided to refer the case to the CJEU, given the potential impact of the case on Internet users across the EU. The CJEU has now sided with the Supreme Court.

The EU's top court found that the copies that are inherently made when people browse the Internet do not violate copyright law, and that people do not need permission from a copyright holder to view Web content. The EU law must be interpreted as meaning that the copies on the user's computer screen and the copies in the 'cache' of that computer's hard disk are covered by the exception for temporary acts of reproduction of the EU Copyright Directive, the court ruled.

"This is a crucial judgment," said Jakob Kucharczyk, Brussels director of the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) in a response to the ruling. "Any other ruling would essentially mess up the Internet for European citizens."

"Despite the ruling, one cannot overstate how irrational this case was to begin with. It's hard to believe the question at stake was whether browsing the Internet is legal or not," he said, adding that it may be time for a change of the EU's copyright regime. "This was not the first copyright case challenging the foundations of Internet use, and policymakers will have to ensure that copyright rules will not continue to threaten the growth in the Internet economy."

"This is a huge step in the right direction for the courts as they seek ways to deal with the thorny issues of Internet use and copyright law," PRCA Director General Francis Ingham said in a statement, adding that the NLA's attempts to charge for reading online content do not just affect the public relations world, but the fundamental rights of EU citizens to browse the Internet.

"This ruling serves the interests of business, technology and millions of Internet users and ensures protection from being accused of copyright infringement," Jorn Lyseggen, CEO of Meltwater, said in a statement.

The NLA said in its statement it was pleased that the principle that publishers should be fairly remunerated for use of their copyrighted content has been upheld throughout the court cases. The net economic effect of this judgment for newspaper and magazine publishers should be neutral, it said, adding that negotiated commercial solutions that recognize and meet the needs of all parties are the way forward.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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