Does your business ever link to other people’s website content?
Have you ever wondered whether you might be breaking rules by doing this or infringing the author’s copyright? Well, the situation has fortunately now been resolved once and for all following a recent declaratory judgement by the European Court of Justice. The court ruled that it is perfectly acceptable for businesses to link to another business’ freely available online content. So links are fine even without the express permission of the copyright holder.
The decision comes after a dispute in Sweden between journalists working for Swedish newspaper, Goteborgs-Posten, and a web company that had posted links on its site to online news articles. The company, Retriever Sverige, ran a website that provided links to articles published by other websites. In the original court case the journalists contested the legality of Retriever Sverige’s actions on two fronts: users of Retriever Sverige’s website would not know that they had been redirected to another website by clicking on the links, and the web company had made their articles available without authorisation, breaking copyright laws. They argued, therefore, that they were entitled to compensation for this breach.
The case proved to be unsuccessful in the Swedish courts, so Goteborgs-Posten appealed to the EU Court of Justice, asking it to rule on whether copyright law had been broken.
The court had to consider whether by providing links Retriever Sverige had taken part in an “act of communication to the public”. Under EU copyright law, authors have the exclusive right to authorise or prohibit any communication to the public of their works. The Court of Justice ruled that the law had not been broken because the articles in question were on Goteborgs-Posten’s website and therefore already “freely available” in the public domain.
In a written statement the court clarified the legal position of linking to websites, saying:
“The owner of a website may, without the authorisation of the copyright holders, redirect internet users, via hyperlinks, to protected works available on a freely accessible basis on another site.”
However, they distinguished between “freely available” material and restricted content, ruling that the “position would be different” if a link led users to material that had purposely been restricted from being freely available – in other words, if it had been posted on a site that operates a paywall.
What does this ruling mean for websites that often link to other websites’ content? Well, according to Susan Hall, a technology lawyer at Clarke Willmott, had Goteborgs-Posten’s appeal succeeded it would have had a very damaging effect on the internet. She told the BBC:
“If the decision had gone the other way it would have broken the internet. The way we communicate online is predicated on sharing material, whether that’s links to Robert Peston on Bank of England interest rates, decisions of the European court or pictures of otters who look like Benedict Cumberbatch.”