The relevance of profit for the qualification of an act of communication to the public according to the Italian Court of Frosinone

The decision of the Court of Frosinone, published on February 2017 (available here), relies on a criminal investigation carried out by the Italian Tax Police earlier in 2014 against several websites that shared protected contents without the authorization of the right holders. Among these websites, there was also filmakerz.org.

The users of filmakerz.org were allowed to access without right holders’ consent a large number of movies and TV series through hyperlinks posted on the website. However, before being able to check the list of links that redirected to other websites, users were forced to see advertising banners.

The Italian Tax Police initially requested the Review Court of Rome, competent to rule on precautionary measures, to grant the preventive seizure of the website to exclude any further access to the infringing material. Other than expected, the Court rejected the request considering that the information insofar collected by the Tax Police was insufficient to prove the capacity of the advertising banners to produce profit in favor of the website’s holder, considering the profit purpose crucial to grant any precautionary measure against filmakerz.org.

Following further investigations, the Tax Police found out that after the first instance request, the websites filmakerz.org and the affiliated websites filmakerz.me and filmkerz.biz, automatically redirected to the website cineteka.org. According to the Tax Police, it was highly reasonable that all the domains were managed by the same person (filmakerz.org‘s holder), who set the redirection to bypass any possible block applied against filmakerz.org and the other affiliated websites.

The evidence presented before the Prefecture of Frosinone in the administrative proceedings was instead considered sufficient by the Judge to issue a fine of Euros 546,528.69 according to Article 171-ter, para. 2, letter a-bis of the Italian Copyright Act (which punishes everyone who “In violation of art. 16 of the Copyright Act, for profit, communicates to the public a copyright-protected work or part of it, by entering it into a system of telematic networks, by means of connections of any kind”).

The infringer appealed the administrative sanction before the Court of Frosinone which overruled the Prefecture’s decision. According to the Court the Italian Copyright Act requires the unauthorized communication to the public to be performed for profit, namely the intention to gain a consistent economic advantage or patrimonial increase from the infringer’s illegal conduct. It follows that the hyperlinker cannot be sanctioned for the sole act of linking to unauthorized protected material, but it is necessary that this leads to a considerable economic benefit.

In the case at stake, the evidence collected was deemed not sufficient to prove that the creator of filmakerz.org, filmakerz.me, filmkerz.biz and cineteka.org was obtaining any significant profit from his/her activity.

The Court of Frosinone has been one of the first in Italy to deal with the linking issue after the CJEU recent cases (particularly Svensson, GS Media and more recently the Pirate Bay case).

The meaning of “profit” – and the possibility to detect the existence of such purpose – assumes in the case at stake a prominent relevance. The same factor has been considered also in the CJEU case law, leading to different conclusions.

In the GS Media case (available here), the CJEU did not clarify what should be intended as “lucrative purpose”, though the Court specified that the presence of the profit intention is relevant to determine whether the conduct of the hyperlinker amounts to an “act of communication to the public”. In fact, in case hyperlinking is made for profit it must be assumed that it has been made following previous controls, from which the hyperlinker should have verified that the work in question is not unlawfully published on the site to which those hyperlinks refer. Even though no lucrative purpose is detected, hyperlinking can still be considered an “act of communication to the public” if the hyperlinker is aware – or should have been reasonably aware – of the fact that said work had been published on the Internet without authorization. In the GS Media case the CJEU asserted that a profit purpose existed. But the absence of lucrative purpose would not have directly led to the exclusion of the hyperlinker’s liability: it would have just implied the need for further evidence (based on the awareness criterion).

In the Pirate Bay case (available here) the EU Court stated: “there can be no dispute that the making available and management of an online sharing platform, such as that at issue in the main proceedings, is carried out with the purpose of obtaining profit therefrom, it being clear from the observations submitted to the Court that that platform generates considerable advertising revenues”. In this case, the presence of the profit intention is strictly connected to the fact that the hyperlinker was obtaining “considerable advertising revenues” from its activity, in a way which highly resembles the case held before the Court of Frosinone. Indirect income, such as the one obtained from the advertising banners, might be qualified as source of profit in the way intended by the CJEU in the Pirate Bay case. Moving from this decision, the Court of Frosinone might have qualified the profit incoming from the advertising banners, placed on the websites under investigation, as sufficient to consider fulfilled the requirement prescribed by Article 171-ter of the Italian Copyright Act.

The other way around, the Italian Court seems to have considered that the investigation did not provided enough evidence to prove that the infringer gained an economic benefit from his/her conduct. Without clarifying if, in the Court’s view, this circumstance relied on the impossibility to qualify the advertising banners as a source of profit or, conversely, on the inability to prove that the economic advantage gained was “considerable” (that is the term used by the Court). Such consideration would require assessing when the economic benefit can be deemed “considerable” within the scope of the Italian Copyright Law, in contrast with Article 171-ter which refers only to the profit intention itself regardless any quantification.

The above considerations remain however unanswered since the decision does not share any in depth reasoning about the grounds on which the Court ruled, probably without taking into consideration to the CJEU caselaw.

Miriam Loro Piana

Court of Frosinone, docket No. 1766/2015, 7 February 2017, Unknown vs Prefecture of Frosinone (Judge Gemma Carlomusto)

 

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