SOURCE: Monthly Case-law Digest - June 2021
Reference for a preliminary ruling – Intellectual property – Copyright and related rights – Making available and management of a video-sharing platform or a file-hosting and -sharing platform – Liability of the operator for infringements of intellectual property rights by users of its platform – Directive 2001/29/EC – Article 3 and Article 8(3) – Concept of ‘communication to the public’ – Directive 2000/31/EC – Articles 14 and 15 – Conditions for exemption from liability – No knowledge of specific infringements – Notification of such infringements as a condition for obtaining an injunction
In the dispute giving rise to the first case (C-682/18), Frank Peterson, a music producer, is bringing an action against YouTube and its legal representative Google before the German courts in respect of the posting online, on YouTube, in 2008, of a number of recordings over which he claims to hold various rights. Those recordings were posted by users of that platform without his permission.
They are songs from the album A Winter Symphony by Sarah Brightman and private audio recordings made during concerts on her ‘Symphony Tour’. In the dispute giving rise to the second case (C-683/18), the publisher Elsevier is bringing an action against Cyando before the German courts in respect of the posting online, on the ‘Uploaded’ filehosting and -sharing platform, in 2013, of various works over which Elsevier holds exclusive rights. Those works were posted by users of that platform without its permission. They are Gray’s Anatomy for Students, Atlas of Human Anatomy and Campbell-Walsh Urology, which could be consulted on Uploaded via the link collections rehabgate.com, avaxhome.ws and bookarchive.ws.
The Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Court of Justice, Germany), which is hearing the two cases, referred a number of questions to the Court for a preliminary ruling so that the latter can provide clarification on, inter alia, the liability of the operators of online platforms as regards copyright-protected works illegally posted online on such platforms by platform users.
The Court has examined that liability under the set of rules, applicable at the material time, under Directive 2001/29 on copyright, Directive 2000/31 on electronic commerce, and Directive 2004/48 on the enforcement of copyright. The questions referred do not concern the set of rules established by Directive 2019/790 relating to copyright and related rights in the Digital Single Market, which came into force subsequently.
In its Grand Chamber judgment, the Court finds, inter alia, that, as EU law currently stands, operators of online platforms do not themselves make a communication to the public of copyright-protected content illegally posted online by users of those platforms unless those operators contribute, beyond merely making those platforms available, to giving access to such content to the public in breach of copyright. Moreover, the Court finds that such operators may benefit from the exemption from liability under Directive 2000/31 on electronic commerce unless they play an active role of such a kind as to give them knowledge of or control over the content uploaded to their platform.
Assessment by the Court
In the first place, the Court examines the question whether the operator of a video-sharing platform or a file-hosting and -sharing platform on which users can illegally make protected content available to the public itself carries out, in circumstances such as those at issue in the present cases, a ‘communication to the public’ of that content within the meaning of Directive 2001/29 on copyright. 71 At the outset, the Court states the objectives and definition of the concept of a ‘communication to the public’ as well as the associated criteria which must be taken into account when making an individual assessment of what that concept means.
Amongst those criteria, the Court emphasises the indispensable role played by the platform operator and the deliberate nature of its intervention. That platform operator makes an ‘act of communication’ when it intervenes, in full knowledge of the consequences of its action, to give its customers access to a protected work, particularly where, in the absence of that intervention, those customers would not, in principle, be able to enjoy the broadcast work.
In that context, the Court finds that the operator of a video-sharing platform or a file-hosting and - sharing platform, on which users can illegally make protected content available to the public, does not make a ‘communication to the public’ of that content, within the meaning of Directive 2001/29 on copyright, unless it contributes, beyond merely making that platform available, to giving access to such content to the public in breach of copyright.
That is the case, inter alia, where that operator has specific knowledge that protected content is available illegally on its platform and refrains from expeditiously deleting it or blocking access to it, or where that operator, despite the fact that it knows or ought to know, in a general sense, that users of its platform are making protected content available to the public illegally via its platform, refrains from putting in place the appropriate technological measures that can be expected from a reasonably diligent operator in its situation in order to counter credibly and effectively copyright infringements on that platform, or where that operator participates in selecting protected content illegally communicated to the public, provides tools on its platform specifically intended for the illegal sharing of such content or knowingly promotes such sharing, which may be attested by the fact that that operator has adopted a financial model that encourages users of its platform illegally to communicate protected content to the public via that platform.
In the second place, the Court looks at the question whether the operator of online platforms may benefit from the exemption from liability, provided for in Directive 2000/31 on electronic commerce, in respect of protected content which users illegally communicate to the public via its platform. In that context, the Court examines whether the role played by that operator is neutral, that is to say, whether its conduct is merely technical, automatic and passive, which means that it has no knowledge of or control over the content it stores, or whether, on the contrary, that operator plays an active role that gives it knowledge of or control over that content. In that regard, the Court finds that such an operator can benefit from the exemption from liability provided that it does not play an active role of such a kind as to give it knowledge of or control over the content uploaded to its platform. On that point, the Court specifies that, for such an operator to be excluded from the exemption from liability provided for in that directive, it must have knowledge of or awareness of specific illegal acts committed by its users relating to protected content that was uploaded to its platform.
In the third place, the Court clarifies the circumstances in which, under Directive 2001/29 on copyright, 73 rightholders can obtain injunctions against operators of online platforms. It finds that that directive does not preclude a situation under national law whereby a copyright holder or the holder of a related right may not obtain an injunction against an operator whose service has been used by a third party to infringe his or her right, that operator having had no knowledge or awareness of that infringement, within the meaning of Directive 2000/31 on electronic commerce, unless, before court proceedings are commenced, that infringement has first been notified to that operator and the latter has failed to intervene expeditiously in order to remove the content in question or to block access to it and to ensure that such infringements do not recur.
It is, however, for the national courts to satisfy themselves, when applying such a condition, that that condition does not result in the actual cessation of the infringement being delayed in such a way as to cause disproportionate damage to the right holder.