European Court: Viewing the Internet Doesn't Require Copyright Permission

A court ruling in the European Union holds that copies of infringing content on browser screens and in hard drive cache are merely transient and incidental.

An appeals court in Europe has delivered a big decision that knocks down the notion that browsing infringing material on the Internet can rise to copyright infringement.

The dispute stemmed from a service called Meltwalter, which monitors the media for mentions of particular companies and individuals and makes available reports on its website. News agencies have been upset at Meltwater for competing with their own services which charge companies for making commercial use of content.

In the U.S., the Associated Press sued Meltwater for copyright infringement and prevailed against the defendant's fair use rebuttal. (Afterwards, the companies reached a partnership agreement.)  In Europe, a side controversy arose involving the Public Relations Consultants Association, which was one of Meltwater's prime customers.

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The legal battle has raged for some five years, and last year, a United Kingdom High Court asked the Court of Justice of the European Union to examine the issue of whether those who view Meltwater's site, who pick up copies of content onscreen and in the cache of their computer's hard drive, need the authorization of the copyright holder.

The appeals court determines they don't. "It must be held that the period during which the onscreen copies remain in existence is limited to what is necessary for the proper functioning of the technological process used for viewing the website concerned," states the court's opinion. "Consequently, those copies must be regarded as ‘transient.'"

The same holds true for cached copies. "It is true that, unlike the on-screen copies, they are not deleted at the time when the internet user terminates the technological process used for viewing the website concerned, since they are retained in the cache for the purposes of a possible subsequent viewing of that site," continues the opinion. "However, it is not necessary that such copies be categorised as ‘transient’ once it has been established that they are incidental in nature in the light of the technological process used."

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