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

By , IDG News Service |  IT Management

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.

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