The UK supreme court has ruled that readers who open articles via a website link are not breaking the law, overturning the high court’s ruling that browsing was a breach of newspaper owners’ copyright.
But the supreme court has decided that the copyright issues surrounding web browsing are so important that it has referred the case it was examining to the European Court of Justice to ensure that the ruling applies uniformly across the EU.
The ruling comes after a three-year legal between the Newspaper Licensing Agency and a media monitoring company, Meltwater, which charges PR companies thousands of pounds a year for alerts about their clients.
After a dispute over fees that has already been through the high court and court of appeal, the supreme court was asked to look at the narrow question of whether the copyright of newspapers was infringed when a user browses content online.
Five supreme court judges led by the president, Lord Neuberger, found against the NLA’s arguments that browsing would constitute a breach of copyright because the newspaper article would be temporarily stored in the users’ computer and generate what is known as a cached page.
The supreme court said it could not be a breach of copyright as it was a temporary page and the European Court of Justice had already ruled this would be an exception to copyright law, because it was a necessary part of the technical process supporting the internet experience.
The page was “the automatic result of browsing on the internet” and would be overwritten as the reader continued to browse or the cache timed out and was different to downloading or printing out an article, which would be seen as breach of copyright.
The supreme court said if it had found otherwise, it would have been “an unacceptable result, which would make infringers of many millions of ordinary users of the internet across the EU who use browsers and search engines for private as well as commercial purposes”.
“The supreme court has ruled sensibly that merely viewing material on websites does not infringe copyright,” said Toby Ballard, partner and head of broadcasting at law firm Harbottle & Lewis.
In arriving at its decision, the supreme court considered the case of pub landlady Karen Murphy who won her legal fight with the Premier League, which had sued over her use of a Greek decoder to show games. In this case, it was eventually ruled that merely watching digital TV is not an infringement of copyright.
If it was, said Ballard, viewers would have to pay a copyright fee to watch streamed BBC content on iPlayer in addition to their licence fee.
Ballard said the more significant aspect of the ruling was that it was being referred to Europe.
“The European court of Justice has made about a dozen copyright rulings in the last two years. For 30 years, we’ve had no ruling and then suddenly this avalanche. I think they are going hell for leather for European integration on copyright so as create a single market and I think the supreme court have seen this and decided to contribute to this,” said Ballard.
Andrew Hughes, the commercial director of the NLA, said it was “relaxed” about the ruling as it still charged media monitoring companies and end users fees for aggregation of content.
Jorn Lyssegen, chief executive of Meltwater, said he was “very pleased that the supreme court over-ruled the previous rulings by the court of appeals and the high court that the simple act of browsing the internet could be copyright infringement”.
Francis Ingham, director general of the Public Relations Consultants Association, which made the appeal on behalf of Meltwater, said it was “delighted” the supreme court “understood that this does not just affect the PR world, but the fundamental rights of all EU citizens to browse the internet”.
Meltwater’s own evidence indicated that it sends an approximate total of between 8.4m and 126m extracts from articles to its UK clients every year, which generates more than £7m.
The high court had ruled that the headlines, article extracts and the narrower point which the supreme court has ruled on, the opening of a link to an article, were all a breach of copyright.
Newspapers collected £1.5m from media monitoring companies last year and they will continue to charge fees to the PR companies and cuttings agencies.
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Supreme court rules web browsing does not infringe newspapers’ copyright – The Guardian
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