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Dangerous Copyright Ruling In Europe Opens The Door To Widespread Censorship

The EU Court of Justice (CJEU) has been issuing some seriously dangerous copyright rulings recently. Last fall, for example, there was the ruling saying that mere links to infringing content could be direct infringement, rather than indirect (or not infringing at all). Even worse, that ruling argued that posting hyperlinks on a site that is "for profit" requires an assumption that the platform is sophisticated enough to make sure the links are not to infringing content. As we warned that would lead to problematic results, such as a followup ruling in Sweden that merely embedding a YouTube video can be seen as infringing.

Given that background it is not surprising, but still rather unfortunate, that the latest CJEU ruling on copyright takes this to the next level. It basically ignores the clear safe harbors of the EU's Copyright Directive -- which note that platforms should not be responsible for infringing actions of their users -- and says that the Pirate Bay is liable for infringement by its users because it has made infringing works "available."

In today’s judgment, the Court holds that the making available and management of an online sharing platform must be considered to be an act of communication for the purposes of the directive.

That's... a very dangerous interpretation of the law. It undermines two very important concepts in just one sentence. The first is the basic concept of intermediary liability protections -- which say that a platform should not and cannot be held liable for the actions of its users. This should be common sense. If the users break the law, go after the users, not the tools they use. This ruling does the opposite. The second concept that is undermined here is that for infringement to actually occur, distribution (i.e., actual copying) has to happen. Instead, this ruling embraces the twisted notion that merely "making available" a work is somehow infringing. And, here, the court not only gets both of those important concepts wrong, but merges the wrongness together, such that a platform that people use to make works available is suddenly liable for the theoretical infringement of those works. That's... bizarre.

And, of course, the end result of this is that the CJEU is basically clearing the way for courts to order ISPs to block the Pirate Bay entirely (even non-infringing content on TPB). The folks over at TorrentFreak have the background details on the case, which involve attempts by the Dutch anti-piracy organization BREIN to demand that ISPs block all access to TPB. This ruling clears the way for that to happen.

There are other problematic parts of the CJEU ruling (the full text is not yet out, but this is from the press release from the CJEU explaining the ruling). Here, for example, the Court tries to justify ignoring the intermediary liability protections that should be afforded to a platform by trying to argue that TPB somehow does more, which makes it deserving of being liable:

Whilst it accepts that the works in question are placed online by the users, the Court highlights the fact that the operators of the platform play an essential role in making those works available. In that context, the Court notes that the operators of the platform index the torrent files so that the works to which those files refer can be easily located and downloaded by users. ‘The Pirate Bay’ also offers — in addition to a search engine — categories based on the type of the works, their genre or their popularity. Furthermore, the operators delete obsolete or faulty torrent files and actively filter some content.

But think about that for a second. That's the kind of thing that basically any platform does. Indexing what users post on your platform is a standard thing. I mean, our search here has indexed what uses post in the comments, but that shouldn't magically make us liable for what users post in the comments. Second, the fact that they "delete obsolete or faulty torrent files and actively filter some content" shouldn't magically make them liable. In fact, this is exactly why, in the US context, we have a section of CDA 230 that explicitly says that moderating some content shouldn't make you liable for that which you left up. That's because the end result of reading the law this way will be the exact opposite of what most people want. That is, based on this ruling platforms should not moderate any content at all because the court says that doing so suddenly makes you liable for that which you did not moderate. Thus it actually actively discourages content moderation.

The other problematic part from the press release about the ruling is this:

Moreover, the operators of ‘The Pirate Bay’ have been informed that their platform provides access to copyright-protected works published without the authorisation of the rightholders. In addition, the same operators expressly display, on blogs and forums accessible on that platform, their intention of making protected works available to users, and encourage the latter to make copies of those works. In any event, it is clear from the Hoge Raad’s decision that the operators of ‘The Pirate Bay’ cannot be unaware that this platform provides access to works published without the consent of the rightholders.

Again, this should not and cannot be the basis for liability. Again, within the US context, we went over this in the Viacom v. YouTube case. It's one thing to know that some infringement happens via your platform. It's another thing entirely to know which content is infringing. That's not as easy to figure out as some people insist. Again, this kind of thinking would outlaw things like the VCR. Yes, the makers of VCRs knew that some infringing content would be viewed or recorded via the devices, but the device makers were not held liable for that. This CJEU ruling seems to break with all of that.

And while representatives from The Pirate Bay are laughing off this ruling (quoted in the Torrentfreak article above), it won't be a laughing matter for many other companies who may face expanded liability because of this mixed up ruling. It also, likely, will depress entrepreneurship and innovation in the platform space in the EU. All because the legacy content industry is so infatuated with The Pirate Bay that it won't focus on improving its own offerings instead.

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