On the German Supreme Court’s ruling on linking

On December 2017, the German Supreme Court (Bundersgerichtshof, hereinafter “BGH”) released the motivations on which it grounded its decision of 21 September 2017 (available here) on the classification of “linking” as an act of communication to the public.

In the German proceedings, the defendant was the owner of a website incorporating a search engine function which completely relied on Google’s search engine. It resulted that four images, made available in a password-protected section on plaintiff’s websites only to paying users, were made illicitly accessible on the free internet and appeared also as results of the researches launched on defendant’s website.

Following a cease and desist letter, the defendant complied with plaintiff’s request to prevent users from visualizing  the previews of the images under discussion, hindering the connection between the search criterion and those pictures. Later on, however, the plaintiff discovered that other copyright protected images were made available on the very same search engine tool and decided to sue the website’s owner.

In its decision, the German Supreme Court affirmed that an “act of public communication” occurs when a protected work is reproduced using a technical procedure that differs from the one used so far or – otherwise – is reproduced for a new audience. In the present case, even if the images were shared by the same technical procedure (the internet), the defendant’s search process referred to an audience different from the one intended by the plaintiff, as the search was carried out by an indeterminate number of internet users, whereas the images were made available by the plaintiff only to paying users, in a password-protected section of the website.

Given the above, in order to determine the defendant’s liability for such communication to the public, the German Supreme Court followed the reasoning of the CJEU in the Svenssson case and GS Media cases (respectively, C‑466/12 and C-160/15) and tried to determine if the defendant made available the images for profit and if it could have been aware of the fact that the copyright’s owner did not gave his consent to the sharing of the pictures.

The conclusions of the German Court can be summarized as follows:

  • the Judges did not share the arguments on which the CJEU based the decisions above quoted, deeming that in those cases too broad relevance had been given to the financial gain element in order to assess whether the infringement occurred. According to the BGH, to connect the existence of a scope of profit with the knowledge that hyperlinks have been published without copyright holder’s permission amounts to a misleading presumption.
  • the results of a search engine are collected by the tool through the application of an algorithm that select the content in an automatized manner. Therefore, other than in the cases analyzed by the CJEU, the search engine provider does not have manual and/or direct control on the results displayed.
  • according to the Court, the provider of a search engine cannot reasonably be expected to ascertain whether the images of works or photographs found by the search programs have been lawfully posted on the internet before reproducing those images. Linking a photograph provided on a third-party website to another website by means of an electronic link does not constitute a copyright exploitation of public access as only the operator of the external website, who uploaded the photo to the internet – and not the search engine tool provider – can decide whether it remains accessible to the public.
  • A duty of the search provider to investigate the legality of the publication of the images found by search engines before their display is contrary to the task and mode of operation of the search engines themselves.
  • The Court concluded asserting that there is no doubt, on the basis of the assessment criteria established by the CJEU, that a public reproduction by the provider of a search engine tool, of works protected by copyright within the meaning of Article 3 (1) of InfoSoc Directive, exists only if the copyright holder has not permitted the publication of the works on the open internet and it is clear that the provider of the search function was aware of this or could reasonably have been. Moreover, as hinted, other than in the quoted CJEU decisions, the BGH does not automatically connect the awareness (or the reasonable awareness) of the illicit communication to the presence of a financial gain.

The decision of the BGH not only provides with a broader interpretation of the application of the CJEU case law but constitutes also a milestone in the already ‘historical’ contrast between copyright owners and search engine providers on who should bear the duty (and the costs) of monitoring the internet preventing the exploitation of copyright protected material. It can be inferred that the German Judges shared the opinion also expressed by the Courts of other EU Countries confirming that it is up to the copyright holder to perform such controls and inform the search engine provider accordingly; on its side, the latter should promptly comply with the requests to eliminate the contents illicitly made available.

Miriam Loro Piana

Bundesgerichtshof (German Supreme Court), decision of 21 September 2017, I ZR 11/16

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