Tagged: Spiegel Online v Volker Beck

Finding Comfort between a Rock and a Hard Place Advocate General Szpunar on striking the balance in copyright law

By Justin Jütte

Opinions in Funke Medien v Germany (Case-469/17), Pelham v Hütter (Case C-476/17), and Spiegel Online v Volker Beck (Case C-516/17)

In three Opinions that address the balance between copyright as a fundamental right and the right to freedom of expression, Advocate General Maciej Szpunar suggests that external challenges to exclusive rights under copyright law should be limited to extreme cases. In his view, the balance between different fundamental rights in copyright must be struck by the legislature in order to avoid undermining the efforts of EU harmonization.

Background

At a time where European copyright reform is hotly debated and the policy process is at a breaking point that might result in highly unsatisfactory rules or a persistent standstill in the development of EU copyright law (a brief summary of the current status can be found here., Advocate General (AG) Szpunar has been asked to deliver opinions in three preliminary references. All cases have been referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) by the German Bundesgerichtshof (BGH), the Federal Supreme Court. All three references contain similar and even partly identical questions. The essence of the preliminary references lies in the question how copyright rules should strike the balance between the interests of the right holders and users of works that are protected by copyright.

Copyright grants the author of a work the exclusive right to authorise or prohibit a number of protected acts. Such acts include, most importantly, to make reproductions of the work and to make the work available to the public (in physical and intangible form). An overly broad application of these rights could be used to completely control the use of the work, which is why copyright law foresees exceptions and limitations to the exclusive rights for certain purposes. For example, works protected by copyright, or at least parts thereof, can be used for the purposes of quotation and news reporting. At EU level, these rights and exceptions are mainly harmonized by the Information Society Directive (Directive 2001/29/EC, also ‘InfoSoc Directive’). Article 5 of the InfoSoc Directive contains one exception which Member States (MS) are obliged to implement into their national laws and 20 optional exceptions which MS are at liberty to implement. As a general rule, MS are not allowed to maintain in their copyright laws exceptions or limitations that are not contained in Article 5 (special exceptions exists for certain types of works, such as computer programs in Article 5 of Directive 2009/24/EC and original databases in Article 6 of Directive 96/9/EC); recital 32 of the Directive states that the list in Article 5 is exhaustive. There also exist so-called related rights, or neighbouring rights, which do not protect the author, but rather individuals who create, for example, sound recordings. For instance, the InfoSoc Directive and the Directive on rental and lending rights and on certain rights related to copyright in the field of intellectual property (Directive 2006/115/EC) grant producers of sound recordings similar rights to those enjoyed by authors.

This year the InfoSoc Directive turns 18, and although technology and society and the way we interact with works protected by copyright have changed, the elementary rules of copyright have remained unchanged. The longer Article 5 matured the less palatable it became for those who longed for more flexibility in the EU copyright rules. Technological developments, the Internet, social media and other modern phenomena made the list seem outdated. Exceptions and limitations struggled to  accommodate new business models and the application of new technologies that implied the reproduction, even if only for purely functional purposes, of works protected by copyright. European scholars looked with moderate envy to the US where the US fair use doctrine constitutes a flexible moderating norm that can balance the interests of right holders and users on a case-by-case basis.

Many also turned to fundamental rights as a last resort to force open the exhaustive list of Article 5. The right to freedom of expression, in particular, was used as an argument to suggest that exceptions to the exclusive rights must exist beyond the limited list of copyright exceptions of the InfoSoc Directive.

This post does not discuss in detail the analyses of AG Szpunar that pertain exclusively to the interpretation of exclusive rights and exceptions and limitations. They have already been discussed here for Pelham and here for Funke Medien  and here  and here for Spiegel Online. Instead, this contribution focuses on the balance the Advocate Generals strikes between the right to freedom of expression and the right to property within copyright law.

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