Today, on the verge of the implementation deadline for the CDSM directive, the European Commission has published its long awaited guidance on the application of Article 17 of the Directive, in the form of a Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council. The structure of the final guidance largely follows the outline of the Commission’s targeted consultation on the guidance from July 2020, but there are significant changes to the substance of the final document. The final version of the guidance makes it clear that the European Commission has completely undermined the position it held before the CJEU, that Article 17 is compatible with fundamental rights as long as only manifestly infringing content can be blocked.
In the final guidance, the Commission maintains that it is “not enough for the transposition and application of Article 17(7) to restore legitimate content ex post under Article 17(9), once it has been removed or disabled” and argues that only manifestly infringing content should be blocked automatically, but these “principles” are included in name only. By introducing the ability for rightholders to “earmark” any content that has the potential to ”cause significant economic harm”, the guidance allows rightholders to easily override these principles, whenever they see fit, and to force platforms to automatically block user uploads even if they are not manifestly infringing.
In the remainder of this post we will examine these last minute changes to the guidance in more detail. Before we do that, we will briefly recall the key problem that the guidance was supposed to resolve and the principles that underpinned previous versions of the guidance.
Civil society groups have placed a lot of hope in the European Commission to limit the dangers to fundamental rights caused by upload filters through the Commission’s Article 17 guidance, which is supposed to help member states implement Article 17 of the DSM directive in a fundamental rights-preserving manner. But with less than two months to go before the implementation deadline, the guidance is still nowhere to be seen. In an open letter published today, twenty user rights organisations are therefore calling on the Commission not to undermine elements of the guidance that would protect users’ fundamental rights by limiting the use of automated upload filters to manifestly infringing content.
Late last week, the CJEU unexpectedly postponed the Advocate General opinion in the Polish case challenging the fundamental rights compliance of Article 17 of the DSM directive by almost three months. Knowing that the upcoming Commission guidance was discussed extensively at the CJEU hearing on the Polish case in November, the postponement could very well mean that the Advocate General wants to see the document before issuing an opinion.
While the Commission has been hinting at the imminent release of the guidance for a few months now, the timing indicates that the Commission precisely wanted to avoid giving the Advocate General time to study the guidance. This does not bode well for the fundamental rights safeguards the Commission is planning to present. Signals are mounting that the delays are the result of intense behind-the-scenes political wrangling aimed at undermining the user rights safeguards to be included in the guidance.
That’s why, together with 20 other users’ rights organisations who have participated in the EU stakeholder dialogue on the implementation of Article 17, we have sent an open letter to the Commission, raising our concerns about the handling of the final phase of this process. The letter urges the Commission “not to weaken its guidance through open ended exception clauses that seem to benefit particular rightsholders at the expense of users’ fundamental rights” and stresses that “strong ex-ante fundamental rights protections are necessary to meet the obligation of result to protect users’ fundamental rights.”
The letter further highlights the fact that, by issuing guidance that substantially diverges from the position taken before the CJEU, the Commission would indicate that it is ultimately lacking the political will to ensure that the required fundamental rights protections will be included in national implementations of the directive.
On Tuesday, November 10, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) heard case C-401/19. This case is a request by the Polish government to annul the filtering obligation contained in Article 17 of the Copyright in the Digital Single Market (DSM) Directive on the grounds that it will lead to censorship and will limit the freedom of expression and the freedom to receive and impart information guaranteed in Article 13 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (Charter).
The defendants in this case are the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. In addition, the European Commission and the governments of France and Spain intervened in the case on the side of the defendants. Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe was also present at the hearing.
Even for astute followers of the discussions around the implementation of Article 17, the hearing contained a number of surprises. While several Member States have been soldiering on with their national implementation proposals with little regard for the fundamental rights implications of Article 17, the hearing showed that the Court is taking Poland’s complaint very seriously and that the compliance of the contested provisions of Article 17 with the Charter is far from evident. Frequent reference was made during the hearing to the recent opinion of Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe in the YouTube and Cyando cases, which is highly critical of extensive obligations on platforms to police the copyright infringements of their users.
On the face of it, the case is about Poland’s request to annul Articles 17(4)(b) and (c) of the DSM directive. Poland argued its case, which essentially rests on the observation that while not explicitly mandating them, Article 17(4)(b) and (c) effectively require platforms to implement upload filters because there are no other effective means to comply with the obligations contained therein. Poland argues that this will lead to censorship and will limit the freedom of information of the users of online platforms.
According to Poland, the key problem with the directive is the move away from active participation of rightholders (as initiators of removal requests in the context of notice and takedown procedures) and instead handing the responsibility of removing infringing uploads over to platforms who will have to develop private enforcement systems to avoid liability for copyright infringement. Because they are not facing any comparable risk when they limit user rights by blocking access to legal content, this creates strong incentives for over-blocking. This in turn will result in censorship and violation of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and information under the Charter. Consequently, the problematic parts of Article 17 should be annulled by the Court.
All other parties intervening in the case objected to this line of argument and stated that in their view Article 17 does not violate any fundamental rights. However, they presented strikingly contradictory interpretations of what Article 17 actually requires of platforms. There are two distinct lines of argument: The Commission, the Council and the European Parliament argued that that Article 17 contains enough internal safeguards to prevent users’ fundamental rights from being unduly limited. On the other hand, France and Spain argued that some limitations of fundamental freedoms are justified by the objective that Article 17 seeks to achieve. Continue reading
Earlier this year, Poland initiated a legal challenge against Article 17 of the Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) [C-401/19]. The CJEU has finally published the application for this legal challenge. Our member, Centrum Cyfrowe Foundation, has tried to get access to the complaint before using Freedom of Information requests, without success…
In our opinion, referring the Directive to the Court of Justice is a good step that can help clear controversies concerning Article 17. An independent court will assess issues that in the policy debate are usually dismissed by representatives of rightsholders as fear-mongering or disinformation.
The Republic of Poland seeks the annulment of Article 17(4)(b) and Article 17(4)(c), in fine of the Directive on copyright in the Digital Single Market. In the alternative, should the Court find that the contested provisions cannot be deleted from Article 17 of Directive without substantively changing the rules contained in the remaining provisions of that article, the Republic of Poland claims that the Court should annul Article 17 of Directive in its entirety.Continue reading
Copyright not only regulates the interests of creators and intermediaries, but also applies to users’ rights. This was one of our main arguments in the discussion on Article 17 of the new copyright directive, which was often disregarded by our opponents. In our opinion Article 17 is not well-balanced and creates threats to freedom of expression. Such an assessment is shared by others: the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, non-governmental organizations dealing with digital rights, and a significant part of the academy. Now the very same objections will be evaluated by Court of Justice of the European Union.
Last week, the Government of the Republic of Poland filed a challenge to the new Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, specifically Articles 17(4b) and 17(4c). The Minister of Culture and National Heritage explained:
“in our opinion this mechanism introduces solutions with preventive censorship features. Such censorship is forbidden by both the Polish Constitution and EU law – the Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees freedom of expression.”
Interestingly, by filing the charge, the Polish government fulfilled a political promise made during the recent electoral campaign. At that time, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted that the new law is “a disproportionate measure that fuels censorship and threatens freedom of expression.”Continue reading
Last week the CJEU handed down another judgement dealing with digital activities of libraries (see our take on the e-lending decision from 2 weeks ago here). In its judgement in the Doke & Soulier case (C 301/15) the court ruled that the French law on out-of-print books, which allows French publishers to publish digital editions of out-of-print books, violates the exclusive rights of authors as established by the InfoSoc directive. This means that the French scheme for making out-of-print books available (reLire) will either need to be modified or scrapped.
The judgement does not come entirely unexpected as it is largely in line with the Advocate General opinion from earlier this year. As we have already noted in our analysis of the AG opinion, the case has the potential to undermine Extended Collective Licensing (ECL), which is currently held as the solution for the issue of out-of-commerce works.
At this point it is unclear how the Doke & Soulier judgement relates to the EU Commission’s proposal for dealing with out-of-commerce works in the collections of cultural heritage institutions—currently a part of the proposal for a Copyright in the Digital Single Market directive. Regardless, the judgement casts a shadow of doubt over ECL arrangements such as the one at the center of the Commission’s proposal. This is mainly due to the fact that through this decision the court has established stringent criteria that national measures would need to fulfil. The fact that according to the court “every author must actually be informed of the future use of his work by a third party and the means at his disposal to prohibit it if he so wishes” (para 38) seems to contradict the very purpose of Extended Collective Licensing arrangements, which is to circumvent the need to clear rights on a per-work (or per-rightsholder) basis.
Can ECL still provide a solution for out-of-commerce works?
Looking at the reasoning of the court, it becomes evident that the judgement is not so much concerned with the operation of of ECL as a legal mechanism, but rather with the question of whether EU member states can limit the ability of authors to exercise their exclusive rights in ways other than those foreseen by the EU legislator. The court answers this with a resounding “no” and then goes on to examine whether the French system respects the ability of authors to object to the use of their out-of-print works. The court comes to the conclusion that it does not, because authors are neither individually informed about future uses of their works, and because their ability to opt out of such uses is limited. In summary, the court does not declare ECL in general incompatible with the InfoSoc directive, but has ruled, that the French ECL implementation does not sufficiently respect the authors’ exclusive rights. Continue reading
Yesterday the Court of Justice of the European Union delivered good news in a case that that eagerly watched by Librarians across the Europeana Union. In its judgement in the case VOB vs Stichting Leenrecht (C-174/15 – press release here) the court ruled that rental right and lending right directive also covers e-lending. This is good news for libraries and their users as this means that (within certain limits) libraries can lend out e-books on the same legal basis as they lend out paper books. Prior to this judgement it was generally assumed that e-lending was not included in the scope of the rental right and lending right directive and as a result public libraries wishing to lend out e-books had to conclude licenses with publishers in order to do so.
Yesterday’s judgement came out of a reference to the CJEU in the context of proceedings brought by the Association of Dutch Public Libraries (VOB) which held the view that libraries are entitled to lend e-books included in their collections according to the principle “one copy one user”. This view was not shared by the Dutch government which has passed legislation based on the premises that the digital lending of electronic books does not come within the scope of the exception provided by the rental right and lending right directive.
The VOB wants libraries to allow users to download an electronic copy of a work included in the collection of a library while ensuring that – as long as that user can access that copy – it is not possible for other library users to download another copy. At the end of the e-lending period, the copy downloaded by the first user would become inaccessible, and as a result another lender can download a separate copy. Continue reading
While the European Commission is still busy determining what changes to propose to the EU copyright framework this fall, some stakeholders have decided that instead of waiting for an update of the EU copyright rules (that is at least four years away), they are better of attempting to expand the existing rules. Last year the Dutch Association of Public Libraries (VOB) started a legal procedure against the Dutch organization tasked with distributing to authors the remuneration that libraries pay for lending out books (Stichting Leenrecht).
In addition to paper books, the VOB wants to lend out e-books, but is concerned that the EU directive on the rental and lending rights of books does not cover digital lending. Instead of waiting for an update to the directive, the VOB decided to go to court to clarify the issue. The Dutch Court subsequently referred the case to the the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and asked it to answer the question if digital lending is covered by the Rental and Lending Rights Directive.
While the court’s decisions in the VOB vs Leenrecht case is not expected until late this year, Advocate General (AG) Maciej Szpunar delivered his opinion last Thursday. In its opinion AG Szpunar advises the CJEU to rule that art 1(1) of the Rental and Lending Rights Directive must be interpreted to include the right to lend electronic books included in a library’s own collection. While AG opinions generally offer a good indication of how the Court will decide, they have no direct effect and it is important to remember that the court can also come to a different conclusion than the AG. This of course is exactly the outcome that the VOB had hoped for and as such this AG opinion represents an important step in the fight of libraries to be allowed to adopt their activities to the digital environment. Continue reading