Anyone who clicks on a link and reads an article on a public news website in a commercial setting will infringe copyright unless licensed by the publisher, according to a UK Court of Appeal ruling in the NLA v Meltwater and PRCA case. 

On a more positive note, the court ruled that it will be very rare that headlines are copyrightable, modifying the earlier verdict of the High Court. 

I’ve been speaking with Francis Ingham, Chief Executive of the PRCA and Jorn Lyseggen, CEO of Meltwater about what seems to be a very strange verdict… 

The background

As we reported in 2009, the Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA) introduced a licensing for aggregators and media monitoring firms that use content from its members’ websites. 

Meltwater objected to the NLA’s assertion that its end users receiving commercial monitoring reports also required a license in order to click the links in the reports, and referred the issue to the UK Copyright Tribunal. A ruling on this is expected in September. 

Meanwhile, as the Tribunal was unable to rule on some aspects of the dispute without guidance from the High Court, the NLA took Meltwater and the PRCA [as representatives of end users] to the High Court for copyright infringement, claiming that both Meltwater and its customers needed licences for the Meltwater service.

More background on the case can be found here

What’s your opinion of this verdict? 

Francis: We think that progress has been made with the ruling that headlines are very rarely copyrightable. Over 200 years, no headline has been subject to copyright law. 

Jorn: The big takeaway from this ruling is that our position has been made stronger for the upcoming Copyright Tribunal. 

What is your next move in this case? 

F: The Court has said that the technological process of displaying a web page on a computer is not “temporary copy” exempt from copyright. We will be seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court as part of this ruling is unfair and unreasonable and has implications for the wider public, not just the monitoring and PR industry.

It’s an absurd ruling and one that we are very concerned about. It’s a fundamental thing, not just affecting businesses, but potentially criminalising millions. 

J: The ruling effectively states that millions of internet users are breaking copyright law when they click on news articles. The fact the you are creating a temporary cache on your browser when reading articles makes you a copyright offender. 

How does this ruling affect Meltwater’s business? 

J: This is not a ruling that affects Meltwater any more than previous ones, it’s about being reasonable. Meltwater has accepted that it will get a licence, but we object to the fact that NLA insisted that our end users also require one. 

The UK’s licensing system is unique. We operate in 27 countries and haven’t had any problems like this elsewhere. The NLA’s approach simply doesn’t reflect the way the modern world works. 

What is the PRCA”s role in this dispute? 

F: I applaud Meltwater for the stance it has taken, as it is the only firm that decided to contest the NLA’s policies. Our involvement is due to the fact that end users would have been criminalised, and we have managed to delay the implementation of this system so far.

What is your view of the newspapers’ stance? 

F: The newspapers, who are seeking to grow their audiences online and attract people to their websites are sending out some strange signals here to web users. 

Newspapers have a choice: they can charge for content online, or else they can rely on attracting free traffic and making money through advertising. Seeking to criminalise users for following normal web conventions on linking and sharing content is not the answer. 

Is this a case of the law simply not keeping up with the internet? 

F: I think the law is running about 20 years behind everyone else here, and the judgements reflect the fact that they haven’t kept pace with how the web has developed.

J: Either the Court of Appeal has incorrectly interpreted copyright law, or the law is out of date. 

UPDATE: You can read the NLA’s response in this Q&A with MD David Pugh