It's 2016 And The EU Is Just Now Getting Ready To Decide If Hyperlinking Is Legal
from the because-wtf dept
Earlier this week, we wrote about a legislative attempt in France to outlaw hyperlinking without a license (really), but would you believe that whether or not you can link without a license is still an unsettled matter of law in the EU? As is described in great detail over at the Disruptive Competition Project blog, just this week the Court of Justice of the EU heard a case concerning whether or not linking is legal. We wrote about this case last year, but the court has finally heard the case, with an Advocate General recommendation in early April, and a final ruling in the summer. There was a similar earlier case, the Svensson case, which the EU Court of Justice got right, but there’s some concern about this new case.
In Svensson, the CJEU concluded that a link is a communication within the meaning of “communication to the public.” But it let the defendant off the hook on the theory that the communication was not “to the public,” because the hyperlinks provided by Retriever Sverige did not communicate the articles to a “new public.” Simply put, the court reasoned that once the copyright holder makes the work available on the web without technical restrictions (i.e., no paywall), then posting a link to the material doesn’t communicate it to any audience that wasn’t already intended by the copyright holder. Thus, it’s fine to link to something publicly posted online, provided it was posted with the copyright holder’s authorization. No further licensing is required. So, common sense prevailed and crisis averted, right? Not so fast.
Svensson left a crucial question unanswered, and perhaps that question is already clear: What about a link to something that the copyright holder didn’t authorize? For example, what if you post a link on social media to a Buzzfeed article where one of the images that appears in the story wasn’t properly licensed from a photographer, or you link to a leaked document? And where does that leave search engines and other information location tools, which can’t very well determine whether every image, video clip, or article on the websites to which they link has been authorized by the relevant copyright holders before providing you a search result?
This is the question that is before the CJEU in tomorrow’s GS Media case. The defendant is a popular Dutch blog that posted links to photos meant for publication in the Dutch version of Playboy magazine, but which were leaked on an Australian server. No one knows who posted the photos to the Australian server, but everyone agrees that the blog only posted links to them.
But, of course, if the ruling says that such links are infringing, it could create a huge mess. Any link to unauthorized work could be deemed, by itself, to be infringing. And, the rule would apply to any link accessible in Europe, meaning it would impact people around the globe.
If the CJEU rules that every web user, in Europe and beyond, is expected to verify the copyright status of every item on a page before linking to that page, it could effectively destroy the web as we know it today. Would you have to repeatedly check back on the sites you link to, in case the content on the site you linked to has changed? Would you need to confirm that their licenses are all paid in full? Would you also have to verify the copyright status of links on the pages that you’re linking to? If any of this were the case, social media, search, blogs, comment sections, online journalism could be faced with unmanageable legal liability.
Hopefully, the EU Court of Justice recognizes the ridiculousness that would result from such a ruling, but until this summer, we just won’t know.