Friday 29 November 2013

Everyman links to a copyright work

Everyman: I’m trying to understand copyright and linking. With three pending references to the CJEU (Svensson, C More Entertainment, BestWater) I guess we will get some clarity before too long?

Scholarly Lawyer: We’ll get decisions. Clarity would be a bonus.

E: Why is this an issue at all?  Doesn’t everyone link on the internet?

SL: Of course. Trillions of links cause no problem at all. But some copyright owners want the right to control who creates links, or at least public links, to their works.

E: Do they have any basis for that? 
SL: The main battle at the moment is around the copyright communication to the public right.  Some national courts have said that it covers some types of linking.

E: Even where the rightsholder has put the material on the internet itself?  We’re not just talking about linking to infringing copies?

SL: Communication to the public is a pretty blunt instrument. It just refers to communication to the public of ‘works’. 
E: Which could cover authorised as well as unauthorised copies?

SL: Exactly. If the right covers linking to infringing copies, on the face of it copyright owners end up with a right to control linking to material that they have put on the internet themselves.
E: Which would be absurd.

SL: Most people would think so.  Even the most devoted adherents of strong copyright tend to stop short of arguing that rightsowners should be able to control simple linking to their own material.  
E: So where do they draw the line?

SL: They tie themselves in knots trying to do it.  The reality is there is no obvious principled basis on which to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate linking within the communication to the public right – and probably no comprehensible one either.

E: But didn't Mr Justice Arnold recently distil 18 principles from the nine CJEU cases on communication to the public?

SL: Yes. A heavier burden than one sentence of any EU Directive should have to bear.
E: What about reference linking?  Isn’t that a good dividing line?
SL: No-one agrees on what reference linking is. All links have a reference function because they refer to resources on the internet.  But you are right: the International Literary and Artistic Association (ALAI) based their recent Report and Opinion on what they called reference linking.

E: How did they define it?

SL: They distinguished between a link direct to specific material protected by copyright, using its URL; and a link which “does not make a specific protected material available, but merely works as a reference to a source where it may be possible to access it and where access to the specific work itself or otherwise protected material is not achieved.”

E: A bit of a mouthful, but doesn’t that make some sense?

SL: Not really.  This is a link to the ALAI report – a PDF file. The ALAI’s position is that it needs their permission (assuming they are the copyright owner), because it is direct to specific copyright protected material using its URL. A link to a file, in other words.
E: OK then, this link is to the page containing the ALAI report. Aren’t they saying that that link shouldn’t need permission because it only refers to a source from which you can access the report?

SL:  If so, it doesn’t help. The page that you have just linked to is itself probably a copyright work. The link may be a reference link viz a viz the report, but it is a direct link to the webpage using its URL. The webpage is an HTML file.  So on the ALAI’s logic it must need the permission of the copyright owner of the web page. You still end up in the position that every link – even a link to a home page – needs permission, unless the target page is for some reason not protected by copyright.

E: Oh. What sort of other links are there?

SL: You name it.  Simple links, deep links, inline links, embedded links, framing links, aggregating links, links to infringing copies, links to downloads, links to streams.

E: But none of them involves the linking site in storing the copyright material?
SL: Correct, except where the linking code has captured a thumbnail of a target image or video. And in none of them is the linking site or link creator part of the transmission stream.  That always goes direct from the target site to the user.

E: Does that matter?

SL: The Copyright Directive talks about the right to authorise or prohibit communication to the public of the work “by wire or wireless means”. According to Recital (23) the right “should not cover any other acts”.
E: That’s why the UK copyright legislation says the communication must be "by electronic transmission"?

SL: Yes. So you would expect the right to apply to those who initiate or intervene in the actual transmission.  That’s been true of every CJEU case so far.  The furthest the CJEU has gone, in Airfield, is to include someone who provided the encryption key and decryption card that enabled a user to receive an encrypted broadcast. The CJEU said this was an intervention without which those subscribers would not be able to enjoy the works broadcast.
E: Seems a long way from linking.  Surely people can access a work on the internet whether or not someone has linked to it?

SL: If it is publicly available, yes. The European Copyright Society Opinion on Svensson leads with the transmission point.  They say “Hyperlinks are not communications because establishing a hyperlink does not amount to ‘transmission’ of a work, and such transmission is a pre-requisite for ‘communication’.”  

E: But many national courts have held that linking can be a communication to the public.  If intervention in transmission is required, how can they have done that?

SL: By taking a very broad view of intervention.  The courts have tended to consider intervention in the availability of the work generally, without really focusing on whether there was intervention in the transmission.
E: Does any of this really matter? Isn’t linking so widespread that we all have implied permission to do it?

SL: Not if there are express licence terms on the target website.  And probably not if the link is to an infringing file.  In any case implied licence doesn’t address some pretty fundamental objections to requiring permission. Is a Twitter user really supposed to access the target site and check whether there are express licence terms, and if not consider whether there might be an implied licence, before tweeting (or retweeting) a link to an item on it? And how can the tweeter tell if the siteowner is entitled to give permission? In Svensson the link was to articles licensed by a newspaper, but which the plaintiff journalists said the newspaper didn’t have their authority to license.
E: I feel a chilling effect coming on.

SL: You’d be right.
E: Didn’t Tim Berners-Lee say that a right not to be referred to pulls the rug from under free speech?

SL: Yes. And SABAM v Scarlet demonstrates that the days when copyright could sit in its own little bubble, finely dissecting the wording of copyright treaties without regard to the human rights framework around it, are long gone at least in Europe.

E: If there are international treaties, don’t we have to abide by them?
SL: Certainly, but copyright instruments are not the only international treaties to which we adhere. The European Convention on Human Rights is also an international treaty. A copyright treaty has to be interpreted in a way that is compatible with and takes into account international treaty obligations in respect of fundamental human rights.

E: Aren’t some types of linking still potentially damaging to copyright owners?

SL: Perhaps, but the communication to the public right is far too blunt an instrument to catch culpable behaviour while leaving the rest alone.  If you want to catch culpable behaviour, there are better tools such as accessory liability for someone else’s infringement.  However that is outside the CJEU’s remit as it is not harmonised across the EU.
E: Roll on Svensson.

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