European High Court Says No to ISP-Level Copyright Filtering

Last Thursday the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that ISPs cannot be held responsible for filtering traffic on their networks in order to catch copyright infringements.  This ruling was the final step in the journey of the litigation between the Belgian music rights collecting society SABAM and the ISP Scarlet, but it is a landmark decision for all of Europe.

This ruling overturned the Belgian Court of First Instance, which four years ago required Scarlet to install filtering technology such as acoustic fingerprinting to monitor Internet traffic and block uploads of copyrighted material to the network.  Scarlet appealed this decision to the Brussels Court of Appeals, which sought guidance from the ECJ.

The ECJ’s statement affirmed copyright holders’ rights to seek injunctions from ISPs like Scarlet to prevent copyright infringement, but it said that the Belgian court’s injunction requiring ISP-level copyright filtering went too far.  It cited Article 3 of European Union Directive 2004/48, which states that “measures, procedures and remedies [for enforcing intellectual property rights] shall be fair and equitable, shall not be unnecessarily complicated or costly and not impose unreasonable time-limits or unwarranted delays.”  The ECJ decided that the mechanism defined in the appeals court’s ruling did not meet these criteria.

The real issues here are the requirement that the ISP bear the cost and complexity of running the filtering technology, and the fact that running it would slow down the network for all ISP users.  It’s easy to see how this would not meet the requirements in the above EU Directive.

This decision has direct applicability in the European Union, but its implications could reach further afield.  For example, the issue currently being argued between Viacom and Google at the appeals court level in the United States boils down to the same thing: whose bears the cost and responsibilty to police copyrights on the Internet?

Of course, EU law doesn’t apply in the United States.  In the Viacom/Google litigation, Google is relying on the “notice and takedown” portion of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a/k/a section 512 of the US copyright law. This says that if a copyright holder (e.g., Viacom) sees one of its works online without its authorization, it can issue a notice to the network service provider to take the work down, and if it does so, it won’t be liable for infringement.  Google’s argument is that it follows section 512 assiduously and therefore should not be liable.

Viacom’s task in this litigation is to convince the court that the DMCA doesn’t go far enough.  More specifically, its argument is that the legislative intent behind the DMCA is not served well enough by the notice-and-takedown provisions, that network service providers should be required to take more proactive responsibility for policing copyrights on their services instead of requiring copyright owners to play the Whack-a-Mole game of notice and takedown.

The ECJ’s decsion in SABAM v. Scarlet has no precedential weight in Viacom v. Google.  But it may help get the Third Circuit Appeals Court to focus on what Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School has called the “gravamen” (which is legalese for “MacGuffin“) in this case: who should be paying for protecting copyrights.

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