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They would say that, wouldn't they: how the Newspaper Licensing Agency has undermined web browsing

October 1st, 2012

A crosspost from the well-read 1709 copyright blog – thanks to Jeremy for publishing it there.

Simon Clark from Berwin Leighton Paisner recently argued that the infamous High Court and Court of Appeal rulings on Meltwater v NLA don’t “break the internet”, as others have claimed.

There were two odd omissions from his piece – first, an acknowledgement that he helped to represent the NLA, and second, any direct quotes from the courts’ judgements. I should therefore explain that I am a founder of Cutbot, a new online media monitoring firm. Nevertheless, my objections to his position and to the courts’ rulings are to the principle more than to the commercial consequences.

Let’s start by disposing of one of Mr Clark’s red herrings. He claims that the rulings rested in part on the terms and conditions posted as public notices (in the Hitchhiker’s Guide sense) on publishers’ websites. Entirely untrue. To quote the Court of Appeal (§49):

The purpose of these proceedings is to ascertain the rights of the parties in relation to copyright, not some independent contractual right of a publisher.

He also sets out a straw man argument, which he claims is regularly made – that the Court of Appeal has made “all browsing on the internet illegal”. No, it has not. But nor does the ruling only affect paid-for monitoring services like Meltwater or Cutbot. To quote from the High Court (this is the bulk of §103):

When an End User clicks on a Link a copy of the article on the Publisher’s website which appears on the website accessible via that Link is made on the End User’s computer. […][I]t seems to me that in principle copying by an End User without a licence through a direct Link is more likely than not to infringe copyright.

The Court of Appeal, summarising the High Court’s ruling, explained that (from §5):

[T]he copies made by the end-user’s computer of … the article itself when clicking on the link indicated by Meltwater News are and each of them is, prima facie, an infringement of the Publishers’ copyright.

Remember these are not copies in the sense of republication elsewhere for any purpose, commercial or otherwise. These prima facie infringements occur when a user clicks on a link in an email and their computer asks a publisher’s server for a copy of a legitimate article, as posted on the publisher’s site. The publisher’s server freely provides the HTML and associated code required to view the page. Receiving this information is, the courts argue, prima facie an infringement of copyright.

Furthermore, just viewing an email containing headlines and links to legitimate content will infringe, (High Court, §104):

An End User who uses the share function to forward a headline Link (and, a fortiori, an End User who simply forwards an email) to a client will make further copies and thus further infringe. Such forwarding will also be issuing a copy to the public under s. 18 CDPA.

The scope of the courts’ rulings is actually this. All browsing of copyright material is a potential infringement unless a defence of non-commercial or private use applies. So too is merely referring to a work by its title (such as the headline). Simply receiving an email with links can be infringing – even if you have no contractual relationship with any media monitoring firm. The fact that the NLA have only hit media monitoring firms and our clients should not reassure anyone else who visits the Guardian or Telegraph websites at work. You should also worry that they require a licence from a small UK startup like ours, with a turnover of below £30k, but have exempted Google, whose UK turnover alone is nearly £400m.

The Google News site is, of course, free to the end user, but Google is hardly a charity. As the two pigs fail to notice in the context of Facebook, we’re not the customers, we’re the product. But Google News is a sideshow compared to Google’s main operation. They aim to index every public page with copyright material, and are not charged for the privilege. We index a small subset of those pages and are threatened with a charge equivalent to a third of our turnover (Meltwater are asked to pay 0.14% of theirs, incidentally). The upshot is that any search engine could, if the publishers wanted, be charged or excluded. They gave up in Belgium, but that’s hardly reassuring either.

Clearly newspaper articles are works for copyright purposes, which is why we do not show clients any part of the body of the article, unlike Meltwater. Headlines are titles, though, just like titles for any other work. Whether or not they are copyright, they are also the only clear way to refer to a work. Even if one agrees that headlines can be copyright, that should not necessarily imply that using them to reference articles constitutes infringement. That’s an essential part of the democratic flow of information, as protected by Article 10 of the ECHR. In fact, the protocols on which the internet is built include inherent implied licences.

We intend to challenge some of the consequences of these confused rulings: by negotiation with the NLA if possible, or through the Copyright Tribunal if not. For example, the NLA, acting as a collecting society, charge us and our clients a licence fee, and obtain our clients’ contact details, while running a partially competitive service called eClips. It’s hard to imagine a clearer prima facie breach of competition law, facilitated in this case by unclear legislation and a collecting society determined to see what Professor Lionel Bently calls “innocent acts” defined as infringements.

Other problems caused here may be resolved in the Supreme Court, especially given developments in EU law (notably Infopaq II and FAPL). Some, I suspect, will have to be legislated on if Ministers don’t want a uniquely heavy-handed copyright regime to stifle the sorts of legitimate businesses that thrive elsewhere, and if they don’t want to hand UK markets over to our unhindered competition in the US or elsewhere in the EU.

Posted in: Legal & copyright

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