29 July 2019CopyrightRory O'Neill

CJEU hands win to media outlets in Spiegel Online ruling

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has ruled that news outlets do not, “in principle”, need to seek authorisation for use of a copyright-protected work when reporting current events.

The  ruling, issued today, July 29 came after the CJEU was asked to weigh in on a dispute between German news website Spiegel Online and a German politician.

Volker Beck, a former member of parliament for the Greens, sued Spiegel Online for copyright infringement after the news outlet published an article he had authored in 1988.

The article garnered significant media attention due to controversial claims it made about the criminalisation of paedophilia.

Beck said that the publisher of the book had distorted his claims, and published the original manuscript on his own website.

Spiegel Online ran a story in which it claimed that Beck’s claims about the publisher editing the manuscript were unfounded, and hyperlinked to the manuscript.

According to Beck, the German news outlet’s publishing of his manuscript constituted copyright infringement, as he had not given permission to media agencies to distribute the work.

A lower German court initially ruled in favour of Beck, before Spiegel Online appealed the case to the German Federal Court of Justice.

The German federal court referred the case to the CJEU, seeking clarification on issues including to what extent the 2001 EU Copyright Directive harmonises the exceptions to the exclusive rights of copyright owners.

According to the CJEU’s ruling, the directive does not fully harmonise exceptions to a copyright owner’s rights to distribute their work across the member states of the EU.

National member states, therefore, have “discretion” in implementing the exceptions outlined in the directive, including the right of the press to report on current events.

Courts were obliged, the CJEU ruled, to strike a balance between IP rights and fundamental rights, such as freedom of the press.

“The protection of IP rights is not absolute,” the court said in a  press release.

Member states and courts also had to take into account “the fact that the nature of the ‘speech’ or information at issue is of particular importance, notably in political discourse and discourse concerning matters of the public interest,” the CJEU press release added.

The court also established that media outlets could quote from a protected work via a hyperlink, provided that the work had been previously made publicly available with the approval of the copyright owner.

The German Federal Court will rule on whether these criteria were met in the case of Beck’s manuscript.

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