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Top EU Court's Advocate General Says German Link Tax Should Not Be Applied -- But On A Technicality

As numerous Techdirt posts have explained, there are two really problematic areas with the EU's proposed copyright directive. Article 13, which will require pretty much every major online site to filter uploaded content, and Article 11, the so-called "link tax", more formally known as an "ancillary copyright". It's yet another example of the copyright ratchet -- the fact that laws governing copyright only ever get stronger, in favor of the industry, never in the other direction, in favor of the public. We know for sure that Article 11 will be a disaster because it's already been tried twice -- in Germany and Spain -- and failed both times.

Despite that fact, the German and Spanish laws are still on the law books in their respective countries. VG Media, the German collective management organization handling copyright on behalf of press publishers and others lost no time in bringing a case against Google. It alleged that the US Internet company had used text excerpts, images and videos from press and media material produced by VG Media's members without paying a fee.

Alongside the issue of whether Google did indeed infringe on the new law, there is another consideration arising out of some fairly obscure EU legislation. If the new German ancillary copyright law is "a technical regulation specifically aimed at a particular information society service", then it would require prior notification to the European Commission in order to be applicable. The German court considering VG Media's case asked the Court of Justice of the European Union, (CJEU), the EU's top court, to decide whether or not the link tax law is indeed a "technical regulation" of that kind. As is usual for CJEU cases, one of the court's Advocates General has offered a preliminary opinion before the main ruling is handed down (pdf). It concludes:

the Court should rule that national provisions such as those at issue, which prohibit only commercial operators of search engines and commercial service providers which edit content, but not other users, including commercial users, from making press products or parts thereof (excluding individual words and very short text excerpts) available to the public constitute rules specifically aimed at information society services. Further, national provisions such as those at issue constitute a technical regulation, subject to the notification obligation under that Directive.

It follows therefore, that in the absence of notification of these national provisions to the [European] Commission, these new German copyright rules cannot be applied by the German courts.

Although that sounds great, there are two caveats. One is that the CJEU is not obliged to follow the Advocate General's reasoning, although it often does. This means that it is quite likely that the top EU court will rule that Germany's link tax cannot be applied, and thus that Google has not infringed on any snippets produced by VG Media's members. The more important caveat is that even if the CJEU does take that view, it won't affect Article 11, which is EU, not national, legislation, and not finalized yet. So we are still facing the dire prospect of an EU-wide ancillary copyright that not only won't work, but also is something that many publishers don't even want.

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