Legal: Top judges understand the internet? That really is news

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To the relief of internet users, the UK Supreme Court this month ruled that opening a newspaper article via a website link is not a breach of UK copyright law and no licence is required.

This decision is the latest round in a long series of court battles involving the news aggregator website Meltwater and the Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA).

Meltwater provides a paid-for service to clients by taking search terms provided by the client and using these to provide a daily report of newspaper websites in which the same terms appear.

The client can click on links in the report to view the website articles. Meltwater sent its customers the daily report by email, but Meltwater’s customers could also access it via the aggregator’s website. The question for the Supreme Court was whether customers needed a licence to receive the daily report through Meltwater’s website. The NLA claimed that this involved copying the newspaper websites, even if it was only a temporary or “cached” copy of each website that was being viewed and so a licence fee was payable: thus each client who viewed the end website via Meltwater’s without a licence was therefore committing a breach of copyright law.

The Supreme Court found that no licence was required to view the content. The court said the making of transient, cached copies fell within an exception to UK copyright law.

The Supreme Court said that to have made any other finding would have been “an unacceptable result, which would make infringers of many millions of ordinary users of the internet across the EU who use browsers and search engines for private as well as commercial purposes”. The court also rejected the suggestion that a finding to this effect would encourage piracy, because Meltwater would still need to pay for a licence to upload content.

As a specialist in internet law and data protection, I welcome this ruling in several respects, not least that it shows our senior judges to be more in touch with the web than people give them credit for: as I recall, judges have in the past been criticised for not knowing who the Beatles were, for example. It seems things have moved on.

However, this decision is not quite the end of the story. The Supreme Court considers this such an important issue for internet users that it has referred the case to the European Court of Justice. That interests me as a lawyer because only a year ago the ECJ ruled in favour of landlady Karen Murphy in the “pub football TV” case and that was actually mentioned in the Meltwater decision.

One wonders whether there is a quiet effort being made to try to harmonise the interpretation of copyright law in relation to the internet and television across all 27 EU member states. If that happens it will be no bad thing for the public and business.

• Paul Motion is a partner and solicitor advocate at bto solicitors, Edinburgh. He chairs the Law Society of Scotland’s technology committee.