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CJEU: Multimedia player could breach copyright

The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled that the sale of a multimedia player which enables films that are available illegally on the Internet to be viewed easily and for free on a television screen could constitute an infringement of copyright, suggesting that the temporary reproduction on a multimedia player of a copyright-protected work obtained by streaming is not exempt from the right of reproduction.

In a case brought by Dutch anti-piracy initiative Stichting Brein, the Court noted that a Mr Wullems sold, over the Internet, various models of a multimedia player under the name ‘filmspeler’. “That device acts as a medium between a source of audiovisual data and a television screen. On that player, Mr Wullems installed an open source software that enabled files to be played through a user-friendly interface, via structured menus. In addition, integrated into the player were add-ons available on the internet whose function is to retrieve the desired content from streaming websites and make it start playing, on a simple click, on the multimedia player connected to a television. Some of those internet sites give access to digital content with the consent of the right holders, whilst others give access without their consent. According to the advertising, the multimedia player made it possible, in particular, to watch on a television screen, easily and for free, audiovisual material available on the internet without the consent of the copyright holders,” advised the Court.

Stichting Brein asked the Rechtbank Midden-Nederland (District Court of Midden-Nederland, Netherlands) to order Mr Wullems to cease selling multimedia players or offers of hyperlinks that illegally give users access to protected works. Stichting Brein submitted that, by marketing that multimedia player, Mr Wullems had made a ‘communication to the public’ in breach of the Netherlands law on copyright which transposed Directive 2001/29. The Rechtbank Midden Nederland decided to refer a question to the Court of Justice on that subject.

In its judgment, the Court of Justice held that the sale of a multimedia player, such as the one in question, is a ‘communication to the public’, within the meaning of the directive.

The Court recalled, in that regard, its case-law according to which the aim of the directive is to establish a high level of protection for authors. The concept of ‘communication to the public’ must therefore be interpreted broadly. In addition, the Court has already held that the availability, on a website, of clickable links to protected works published without any access restrictions on another website offers users of the first website direct access to those works. That is also the case in respect of a sale of the multimedia player in question.

In the same way, Mr Wullems, in full knowledge of the consequences of his conduct, preinstalls, on the multimedia player add-ons that make it possible to have access to protected works and to watch those works on a television screen. Such actions are not to be confused with the mere provision of physical facilities, referred to in the directive. In that regard, it is clear from the observations submitted to the Court that streaming websites are not readily identifiable by the public and the majority of them change frequently.

The Court also observed that, according to the referring court, the multimedia player had been purchased by a fairly large number of people. Furthermore, the communication at issue covers all persons who could potentially acquire that media player and have an Internet connection. Thus, that communication is aimed at an indeterminate number of potential recipients and involves a large number of persons. In addition, the provision of the multimedia player is made with a view to making a profit, the price for the multimedia player being paid in particular to obtain direct access to protected works available on streaming websites without the consent of the copyright holders.

The Court also found that temporary acts of reproduction, on that multimedia player, of a copyright protected work obtained by streaming on a website belonging to a third party offering that work without the consent of the copyright holder, cannot be exempted from the right of reproduction.

Under the directive, an act of reproduction is only exempt from the right of reproduction if it satisfies five conditions, namely (1) the act is temporary, (2) it is transient or incidental, (3) it is an integral and technical part of a technological process, (4) the sole purpose of that process is to enable a transmission in a network between third parties by an intermediary or a lawful use of a work or subject matter, and (5) that act does not have any independent economic significance. Those conditions are cumulative in the sense that non-compliance with one of them will lead to the act of reproduction not being exempted. Furthermore, the exemption is to be applied only in certain special cases which do not impair the normal exploitation of the work or other subject matter and do not unreasonably prejudice the legitimate interests of the right holder.

In the present case and having regard, in particular, to the content of the advertising of the multimedia player and to the fact that the main attraction of that player for potential purchasers is the pre-installation of the add-ons concerned, the Court found that the purchaser of such a player accesses a free and unauthorised offer of protected works deliberately and in full knowledge of the circumstances.

Furthermore, acts of temporary reproduction, on the multimedia player in question, of copyright-protected works adversely affects the normal exploitation of those works and causes unreasonable prejudice to the legitimate interests of the copyright holders because it usually results in a diminution of the lawful transactions relating to those protected works.

A reference for a preliminary ruling allows the courts and tribunals of the Member States, in disputes which have been brought before them, to refer questions to the Court of Justice about the interpretation of European Union law or the validity of a European Union act. The Court of Justice does not decide the dispute itself. It is for the national court or tribunal to dispose of the case in accordance with the Court’s decision, which is similarly binding on other national courts or tribunals before which a similar issue is raised

Kieron Sharp, Chief Executive of UK intellectual property protection body FACT welcomed the ruling, describing the ruling as “another step forward in the right direction for the creative industries” suggesting it should send a strong and clear message to the public that this was not a grey area and that anyone using a device to illegally access film, TV, or sports, was breaking the law. “Over the next six months there are several cases going to court regarding the selling of illegal streaming devices and now following this ruling, consideration can be given to investigating those buying and using such device. We will continue to work with The Premier League, Sky, BT Sport, Virgin Media and the film industry to crackdown on these illegal devices and whilst end users are not our primary target, they may get swept up in one of our operations and become part of the whole criminal investigation, which could lead to prosecution alongside the suppliers, retailers and importers,” he confirmed.

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