Japan's Top Court Says 45 Million Twitter Users Must Check That Anything They Retweet Is Not A Copyright Infringement

from the yeah,-that's-feasible dept

Earlier this year, Techdirt reported on an extremely serious development in the world of Japanese copyright, with a new law that will make copyright infringement a criminal offense. Now the country's Supreme Court has issued a ruling that will make using Twitter in Japan more of a risk, legally speaking. The case concerns a photo of a flower, originally posted on a web site in 2009, with the photographer's name and copyright notice. As often happens, the photo was then tweeted without the photographer's consent, and was further retweeted. The problem is that Twitter uses "smart auto-cropping" of images, with the aim of focusing on "salient" regions, and thus increasing the likelihood of someone looking at and engaging with the tweet. Twitter's auto-cropped version of the photo did not include the photographer's name or copyright notice.

As TorrentFreak explains, the photographer was not happy with these tweets and the trimmed versions of his image, even though the original photo showed up if viewers of the retweets clicked on the cut-down photo. He took legal action, and the Tokyo District Court found that the original posting of the flower had indeed infringed the photographer's copyright, but dismissed the photographer's demand for the identities of the people who re-tweeted the image. The photographer then took his case to the High Court division dealing with copyright matters in Japan. It agreed there had been a breach of copyright, and found also that the people posting the cropped image on Twitter had violated the photographer's moral rights because his name had been removed. As a result, the Japanese High Court ordered Twitter to hand over the email addresses of all those who had posted the image.

Twitter appealed to Japan's Supreme Court, arguing that the cropping of the images was automated, and therefore not under the control of users. According to TorrentFreak, the company warned that a judgment blaming Twitter's users could have a chilling effect on the platform in Japan. Nonetheless:

In a decision handed down yesterday, the Supreme Court ordered Twitter to hand over the email addresses of the three retweeters after finding that the photographer's rights were indeed infringed when Twitter's cropping tool removed his identifying information.

Four out of five judges on the bench sided with the photographer, with Justice Hayashi dissenting. He argued that ruling in favor of the plaintiff would put Twitter users in the position of having to verify every piece of content was non-infringing before retweeting. The other judges said that despite these problems, the law must be upheld as it is for content published on other platforms.

It's not clear what the photographer intends to do with the email addresses, but the larger problem is that the ruling makes retweeting images on Twitter much more of a legal risk for the service's 45 million users in Japan. Taken together with the earlier criminalization of copyright infringement, this latest move is likely to discourage people in Japan from precisely the kind of creativity the Internet has helped to unleash. Japan will be culturally poorer as a result -- just as the EU will be, thanks to the unworkable upload filters that are about to be introduced. And all because copyright fanatics seem to think their concerns must take precedence over everything else.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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Filed Under: auto-crop, copyright, intermediary liability, japan
Companies: twitter


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  1. icon
    Jeff Green (profile), 23 Jul 2020 @ 4:23pm

    but ...

    Twitter has a relatively easy get out here, just stop autocropping images if doing so could cause their users a problem. I am not saying I believe (I don't) that all such alleged infringements of copyright should be acted upon or should be able to be acted upon, merely that Twitter's own actions, entirely voluntary actions, put their customers at risk and they do not have to.


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