EU Court Finds That Web Browsing Doesn't Violate Copyright Law

NEWS ANALYSIS: The European Union Courts of Justice throws out a convoluted copyright case in which a publisher claimed that the act of looking at material published on the Internet was actually illegal copying.

A decision on June 5 by the European Courts of Justice that the act of browsing an Internet site does not constitute a copyright violation may sound obvious. But this concept isn't necessarily clear cut in the field of copyright law, even in the United States.

In this particular case, a group of newspaper publishers decided that the act of sending story links to third parties violated the copyright to those stories because the people who then viewed those pages were making an illegal copy on their computer screens and browser caches.

Those publishers sued Meltwater, a marketing services company based in San Francisco, when Meltwater started sending out links to newspaper articles to its clients. Initially, the Newspaper Licensing Agency took action in the Copyright Tribunal in the United Kingdom, which held that Internet browsing did, in fact, constitute illegal copying. Meltwater appealed, eventually to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

Making the situation even more strange is that the newspapers represented by NLA already had posted their own stories on the Web, so they were available for anyone to read if they visited their Websites.

The NLA was trying to sell licenses to Meltwater and to its customer the Public Relations Consultants Association. So the licensing agency wanted the PR folks to pay to look at the Websites that anyone could browse to and look at for free.

"It's mind-boggling," Meltwater CEO Jorn Lyseggen told eWEEK, when he was reached in Accra, Ghana. "To our astonishment, they were able to establish a couple of principles that were in contrast to what most people take for granted," Lyseggen said. "The principle is that if a person is browsing the Internet, the copies on the screen and cache represent a potential infringement."

You may ask yourself what the newspapers thought people would do with their respective Websites if not look at them. As it turned out, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom wondered the same thing. But the court also noted that those supposedly illegal copies were necessary to use the browser technology and that by browsing to a site, those users were simply acting as they must do to use the Internet.

The reason the case ended up in the EU's top court is that the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom felt that the final decision should be applicable across the entire EU. But to achieve that end, the European Courts of Justice had to make the decision. The court did, in fact, find that making temporary copies on a screen and in a cache was a necessary temporary copy, and because of that, it was covered by current European law.

If it sounds as if this is one of those things that can only happen in Europe and doesn't apply to U.S. copyright law, think again. The same theory has already raised its ugly head in assertions surrounding the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the United States.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...