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Internet browsing is a legitimate exception to copyright, says UK court

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the UK Supreme Court's judgment on temporary copies on the Internet in the 'Meltwater case', issued on 17 April 2013. In what could become a landmark decision for freedom of expression on the Internet, the Supreme Court found that unauthorised browsing of copyrighted material was legitimate. The case has now been referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Agnes Callamard, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, said: "We welcome the UK Supreme Court's very sensible approach that merely viewing or listening to material on the Internet does not infringe copyright. The judgment sends a strong signal that the right to freedom of expression includes the right to browse online content - and that this cannot be trampled in the name of copyright. We urge the Court of Justice of the European Union to uphold this decision."

The ordinary use of the Internet involves the creation of temporary copies at several stages. The case raised the crucial question of whether the copies - created while browsing the Internet - infringe copyright law. Lord Sumption, who gave the leading judgment for the Court, said that "the question potentially affects millions of non-commercial users of the Internet who may, no doubt unwittingly, be incurring civil liability by viewing copyright material on the internet without the authority of the right owner".

The Supreme Court concluded that EU law allows an exception for temporary copies generated by the internet user as a necessary part of the technical process supporting the browsing experience. It said that to hold otherwise would lead to the unacceptable result: it would mean that millions of ordinary internet users across the EU would be liable for copyright infringement for merely browsing web-pages containing copyright material.

The Supreme Court found that there was no sound reason why the unauthorised viewing or reading (as opposed to downloading or printing) of copyrighted material online should be considered an infringement, especially since this had never been the case in the offline world.

The judgment is not the last word on temporary copies and web-browsing. Given the transnational dimension of the issue, the Supreme Court decided to refer the case to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling.

Background to the case:

Meltwater, a media monitoring company, provides PR companies with news alerts about their clients. The monitoring reports are sent to the customer by email or the customer can access it on the company's website. The New Licensing Agency argued that in addition to the licence that Meltwater had already taken out to provide their services, the company's clients needed a licence to view the reports when they received them by email or accessed them through the Meltwater website. The High Court and the Court of Appeal agreed. While the issue regarding the e-mail copies was eventually settled, the PR companies took the case to the Supreme Court asking whether permission from the copyright owners was required merely to browse copyright material online.


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