Web-linking and copyright

Posted on: 13 May 2014

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A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has clarified that using hyperlinks to direct users to copyrighted works can be done freely without having to pay royalties to the copyright owner.

The ECJ was asked by the Swedish High Court to rule on whether linking to a work protected by copyright amounted to an "act of communication to the public" which under European Copyright Law would have to be done with the author’s consent, and subsequently the author may have been entitled to request royalties for its use.

The ECJ ruled that linking to copyrighted material did not amount to a "new" communication given it simply linked to the location where the author had already made the material available, but clarified that the position would be very different in cases where links were directed to copyrighted materials that were not freely available to the entire public – e.g. where the site was subject to some form of subscription or a payment was required to access the original content (a vital aspect in the decision to avoid opening the floodgates to complications in respect of areas such as the music and film industry).

The ruling is a key development in the ongoing debate over whether linking to content requires the consent of the author to avoid copyright infringement, and in particular where linking is done via social media where numerous challenges have been made in recent times, especially in the case of specialist sharing platforms such as Pinterest where the protection of copyright is becoming increasingly more difficult to track and enforce.

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