European Union Limits Copyright Law

By | Feb 20, 2012

The European Court of Justice ruled on February 16, 2012, that music copyright holders could not force the operators of online social networking sites to prevent illegal file sharing by installing filters. The court ruled that such filters would violate the protection of personal information and limit online sites in the carrying out of their business. InfoWorld reports that the judge in the case wrote that, "The owner of an online social network cannot be obliged to install a general filtering system, covering all its users, in order to prevent the unlawful use of musical and audio-visual work."

In the United States, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) created special rights and obligations related to computer and Internet activities. It struck a balance between the rights of creators to keep control of their work and the rights of businesses to carry on commercial activities that might include the storing and transmission of original works. The act imposed obligations on online businesses to protect copyright when advised of breaches and to refrain from knowingly promoting activities that infringed on copyright.

Since President Clinton signed the act in 1998, copyright holders have tried to increase the obligations of businesses through legal action and by lobbying for more restrictive laws. In the United States, the now abandoned SOPA and PIPA laws were the most recent example.

The European Court of Justice ruling was in response to a similar effort in theEuropean Union. The case was originally filed by Belgian music management company SABAM against Netlog. SABAM filed suit in Brussels asking the Belgian court to force Netlog to block illegal file sharing on its system and impose fines for non-compliance. Netlog countered that such blocking would require an illegal monitoring of its users' actions and data. The Belgian court referred the case to the European Court of Justice, which delivered the ruling against SABAM.

The sponsors of SOPA and PIPA in the U.S. are preparing new versions of their bills, addressing some of the concerns that led to the dropping of the original legislation. Many companies fall on both sides of the issue in that they don't want their copyrighted material distributed and used illegally, but they also don't want to inadvertently expose themselves to legal action from carrying on their normal business activities.

One of the main issues is whether companies are responsible for material that appears on Web sites they run but don't control. Company message boards, comment boards, and places where customers upload material are good examples. Under the European Union ruling and the DMCA, companies only need act when they become aware of infringing material or are advised of problems by the copyright holder. Under some of the new initiatives, companies are responsible for all material on sites they operate. The European Union court ruling makes such legal extensions of obligations unlikely, at least for Europe.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet.

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