Social networks cannot be forced to install monitoring systems to prevent copyrighted material from being downloaded illegally by users, the European Union’s highest court ruled Thursday.
The European Court of Justice ruled that if a national court required a hosting service provider to install a filtering system, it “would not be respecting the requirement that a fair balance be struck” between intellectual property rights on one hand and the freedom to conduct business and data protection on the other.
The ECJ’s ruling, which followed a referral from a Belgian court, was in line with a decision in November 2011 that said Internet providers cannot be made to filter content.
In both cases, the original complaint was brought by SABAM, a Belgian company that manages the copyrights of writers and composers. It had taken social-networking platform Netlog NV to the Belgian courts for allowing its users to access SABAM’s portfolio of music and audio-visual works. It asked the courts to fine the company EUR1,000 a day for failing to prevent access to its portfolio.
The ECJ ruled that forcing an online social network to apply a filter would result in Netlog having to install an unreasonably “complicated, costly, permanent computer system at its own expense.”
It also raised concerns that doing so would force Netlog to risk infringing data protection rights by requiring it to identify, analyze and process information connected with its users’ profiles.
Michael Gardner, head of the intellectual property practice at London law firm Wedlake Bell, said the decision was a “further blow” to copyright owners but noted that it doesn’t prevent national courts imposing more limited obligations on online sites.
“Under EU law, there has to be a balance between the interests of copyright owners and the rights of privacy and freedom of expression. So far, the courts seem to have rejected the draconian solutions urged on them by the rights owners,” he said.
Belgian courts had been among the most stringent in applying intellectual property rights in the past.
In the previous ruling in November, the ECJ overturned the decision of a Belgian court to order Scarlet, a unit of telecom company Belgacom SA, to install a filter that would check through all its online traffic so as to make illegal downloads impossible.
Scarlet appealed the decision to the Brussels Court of Appeal, which sought the ECJ’s opinion on how the matter affects EU law.