To judge from some of the coverage you would think this is the end of the web as we know it. There is an attempt to portray the ruling as a criminalisation of web browsing and somehow a perverse outcome which sets the internet back.
I would encourage anyone interested to look a little deeper than those rather dramatic assertions. “End of the world as we know it” always makes a good headline but in this case it’s wildly disingenuous.
This is an important ruling but actually not particularly controversial. What it says, in effect, is that you can’t copy stuff without permission. In other words it says exactly what copyright law says. The controversy, such as it is, centres around the fact that the company on the other side of the case depends on a different interpretation of copyright law – specifically that its particular use of content doesn’t require permission.
This may be a common assertion among internet businesses and many others have thrived on the assumption that other people’s content is a free resource available for exploitation. The justification is usually, at its heart, a post-rationalisation. Essentially their argument is that their use of content has to be legal because if it wasn’t they wouldn’t be able to be in business. Which would be terrible because they have a good business and their users like them.
In this particular case the company in question, Meltwater, decided to take a legally aggressive route when confronted with the NLA’s request that they take a licence. They referred the NLA to the UK’s Copyright Tribunal which in turn caused the NLA to go to the high court for a ruling which was today confirmed on appeal.
Meltwater may well be rueing the day they decided to do this, because the consequence of their action is that any possible ambiguity about interpretation of the law has been removed. This doesn’t just affect them, it affects anyone else whose web business is founded on a generous interpretation of the law.
With considerable chutzpah, Meltwater’s CEO has responded to the ruling today by saying “The big takeaway from this ruling is that our position has been made stronger for the upcoming Copyright Tribunal”. He doesn’t say how, which is perhaps unsurprising since it would appear that their starting position (which can be summarised as “we don’t need a licence, but even if we do our clients don’t”) has not just been completely and wholly undermined but some other issues. such as the copyrightability of headlines, have also been clarified in favour of content owners.
Meanwhile the PRCA, Meltwater’s partners in this case (and for legal reasons the lead appellant), seem to be trying to say the ruling makes web browsing illegal or generally criminalises web users. “Millions of professionals will unwittingly infringe copyright legislation on a daily basis by simply browsing the web”, according to a scary statement on Paid Content.
This is, to my mind, clearly nonsensical. Most websites come with explicit or implied permission for people to browse them. What they don’t do is come with any kind of permission to set up a business which relies on copying all the content and selling services based on it to commercial users, nor to ignore requests to stop doing so. Meltwater tried pretty hard to make that case but the original judge and the appeal court both said no.
Which, in my view, is common sense.
I was looking at the Meltwater website just now and was struck by how it had changed since i last looked. Last time a phrase stuck in my mind which I couldn’t find anymore. They used to describe themselves thus: “Meltwater Group is a privately held Norwegian company committed to disrupting the status quo through novel technologies…”. It was the commitment to disruption which had stuck in my mind.
They now take a slightly different tack: “Meltwater is a global Software as a Service (SaaS) company developing disruptive, no-nonsense software…”. Not quite the same emphasis. Perhaps it turns out that disruption cuts both ways.
UPDATE: after posting this I was reading the Meltwater press release about the case again and found one thing a bit confusing having just read the actual judgement.
The press release says
“…The Court of Appeal ruled that it will be very rare that headlines are copyrightable, which is something we’ve been saying from the start,” said Francis Ingham, Chief Executive of the PRCA. “Going back hundreds of years, no court has ever found a title worthy of copyright protection.”
I didn’t remember seeing this in the judgement, so I thought I could helpfully post the relevant paragraph so you can decide for yourself (emphasis added by me):
22.In these circumstances, the conclusion of Proudman J in paragraph 71 of her judgment that newspaper headlines are capable of being original literary works is plainly correct; indeed at one stage in his argument counsel for PRCA conceded as much. It was not suggested that she was not entitled to accept the evidence of Mr Bromley as indicated in paragraph 70 of her judgment. In those circumstances the conclusion in the last sentence of paragraph 72 that “some of the headlines are independent literary works..” is, in my view, unassailable. I would reject the submissions of counsel for PRCA on this part of the case.
48 …There may be some cases in which neither the headline nor the ‘scrapings’ constitute a copyright work or a substantial part of a copyright work. A licence would not be required in such a case but there cannot be many of them.
You should read the whole judgement of course. But hard to see how the PRCA’s conclusion that it is “very rare” that headlines are copyrightable can be drawn from the judgement. Or am I missing something?