Terrible Ruling: EU Decides That Mere Links Can Be Direct Infringement
from the that's-not-how-this-works dept
Last year, we talked about an important copyright case in the EU regarding whether or not linking to infringing material was, in itself, infringing. The case involved a blogger in the Netherlands, Geen Stijl News (“GS Media”) linking to some pre-publication Playboy photos. There had been an earlier case, the Svensson case where the European Court of Justice got things right with regards to whether or not hyperlinks could be infringing, but there were some questions left open in that ruling. The court in the Svensson case found that linking to authorized content wasn’t infringing. But what about unauthorized content?
And now we have the ruling and it’s not very good. Some are trying to spin it as a good ruling, because it basically says that if the link is not for profit, then it’s not infringing, but the worrisome part is that if the link is considered “for profit” then it can be direct infringement. Basically, the court tries to split the baby here. It notes concerns that many people had about how posting a mere link to content could be infringement, in that many times those posting the link will have no idea if the original content is authorized. But rather than actually deal with that specific issue, it just basically said “well, if it’s a for profit effort, then they can afford to figure out if the content is authorized.”
when the posting of hyperlinks is carried out for profit, it can be expected that the person who posted such a link carries out the necessary checks to ensure that the work concerned is not illegally published on the website to which those hyperlinks lead, so that it must be presumed that that posting has occurred with the full knowledge of the protected nature of that work and the possible lack of consent to publication on the internet by the copyright holder. In such circumstances, and in so far as that rebuttable presumption is not rebutted, the act of posting a hyperlink to a work which was illegally placed on the internet constitutes a ?communication to the public? within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29.
Some are celebrating the flip side, which says that if the linking is not for profit and without knowledge that the work is infringing, then it’s not infringing, but even that is troubling. Here’s what the court says for the “not for profit” linking:
For the purposes of the individualised assessment of the existence of a ?communication to the public? within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29, it is accordingly necessary, when the posting of a hyperlink to a work freely available on another website is carried out by a person who, in so doing, does not pursue a profit, to take account of the fact that that person does not know and cannot reasonably know, that that work had been published on the internet without the consent of the copyright holder.
Indeed, such a person, by making that work available to the public by providing other internet users with direct access to it (see, to that effect, judgment of 13 February 2014, Svensson and Others, C?466/12, EU:C:2014:76, paragraphs 18 to 23) does not, as a general rule, intervene in full knowledge of the consequences of his conduct in order to give customers access to a work illegally posted on the internet. In addition, where the work in question was already available with unrestricted access on the website to which the hyperlink provides access, all internet users could, in principle, already have access to it even the absence of that intervention.
But what the hell does all that mean in practice? Well, that’s a complete mess. First of all, as we’ve been discussing for many, many, many years, drawing the line between “commercial” and “non-commercial” is not nearly as easy as it seems — and it’s basically the same for “for profit” and “not for profit” in the EU’s new standard. Just last week we wrote about yet another legal dispute over that exact fuzzy boundary. In an age where anyone can put ads on their site, or use social media to promote their own work or business, how do you determine what’s for profit? It’s not hard to see how a copyright holder may, for example, point to someone linking to an unauthorized copy of their work and then point to a tweet promoting their work, and say that “well this person uses social media for profit, so this link is infringing.”
And, of course, it’s even worse for aggregators, search engines and the media. All of those will be considered for profit, so any link to infringing content may now be considered infringing itself. That’s… really bad for the internet in Europe. You can see why the Court of Justice tried to split the baby here, but you should remember that splitting the baby isn’t a good result. It’s designed to threaten to kill the baby to flush out a better result. In this case, one hopes that the end result of this dangerous ruling will flush out an improved copyright law in the EU that doesn’t make links infringing. Instead, we seem likely to be getting the exact opposite.