Streaming by Using a Multimedia Player: ECJ Rules in Favor of Copyright Holders
By Martin Miernicki
Following the opinion of the Advocate General, the ECJ gave its opinion in Stichting Brein v. Wullems (C‑527/15) on 26 April 2017. The court had to deal with a multimedia player (“filmspeler”), a device which allowed end users to easily stream content from online sources. Pre-installed add-ons – freely available on the internet – to the “filmspeler” contained links which connected to third-party websites which in turn made available protected works without the right holders’ consent; the multimedia player was specifically marketed for this function and sold for profit.
Articles 2(a) and 3(1) of the so-called Copyright Directive reserve the exclusive rights to reproduction as well as communication to the public in respect of their works for authors. Article 5(1) exempts certain temporary acts of reproduction from the scope of the authors’ exclusive rights, subject to the “three-step test” contained in article 5(5). Stichting Brein v. Wullems marks a further important addition to the case law involving the construction of these provisions, especially in the online environment. Relevant prior judgements include Nils Svensson v. Retriever Sverige (C-466/12), C More Entertainment v. Linus Sandberg (C-279/13), BestWater International v. Michael Mebes (C-348/13), and GS Media v. Sanoma Media Netherlands (C-160/15) (on hyperlinks) as well as Infopaq Int’l v. Danske Dagblades Forening (C-5/08, “Infopaq I”), Football Association Premier League v. Media Protection Services (C-403/08 & C-429/08), Infopaq Int’l v. Danske Dagblades Forening (C-302/10, “Infopaq II”), and Public Relations Consultants Ass’n v. Newspaper Licensing Agency (C-360/13) (on temporary reproductions).
The questions referred
The questions referred to the ECJ by the national (Dutch) court related to the perspective of both commercial and end users. It asked, first, whether the sale of a multimedia player as described above constituted a communication to the public within the meaning of the Copyright Directive’s article 3(1); and, second, whether the streaming of unauthorized content by end users with the aid of such multimedia player was covered by article 5(1) and compatible with article 5(5) of the directive.
Selling the multimedia player constitutes a communication to the public
In reference to its prior case law, the court held that the defendant’s conduct constituted an “act of communication” (para 42), directed to a “public” (para 46). Moreover, it reaffirmed its concept of the “new public”. In line with its ruling in GS Media, the court attributed significant importance to the fact that the multimedia player was sold for profit and with the full knowledge that the links provided connected to works made available without the consent of the right holders (para 49 et seq).
Streaming by using the media player is not exempted from the scope of the reproduction right
The actual question was whether the acts at hand carried out by end users could be considered “lawful use” within the meaning of the Copyright Directive. In this respect, the court distinguished the present case from its prior decisions and ruled that the temporary reproductions made while streaming unauthorized content through the media player did not satisfy the conditions set forth by article 5(1). Again, the court emphasized that this function was the “main attraction” of the multimedia player (para 69). Finally, the court noted that the streaming would “adversely affect the normal exploitation” of the copyrighted content and thus conflict with the “three-step test” (para 70).
What does the judgement mean?
The first of part of the judgement is line with the prior case law. As pointed out by the Advocate General, exempting the sale of a media player like that at issue would be too “reductionist” (para 49). Indeed, there is no significant difference between posting a hyperlink on a website and integrating that link in a multimedia player (para 51). However, some questions concerning the court’s concept of the “new public” remain. It is not clear, for instance, under what circumstances a person “ought to know” that a hyperlink provides access to infringing content; it is even more difficult to define the scope of the “for profit” criterion. In both GS Media and the present case, the situation was rather clear; yet, demarcation problems might arise, especially, if the communication does not occur as a core part of the activities carried out for profit, but is of a rather complementary nature (e.g., a lawyer posting hyperlinks on his or her law firm’s blog). Nevertheless, it seems that the (subjective) approach taken by the court in both cases towards the communication to the public of protected works strikes a reasonable balance between the protection of right holders and the interests of internet users.
This also applies, in principle, to the ECJ’s ruling in respect of streaming by end users. In this context, it should be noted that the court merely gave its opinion on article 5(1). Other exemptions or limitations may apply for the benefit of consumers, especially the “private copying exemption” contained in article 5(2)(b) of the Copyright Directive (cf. para 70). Furthermore, as the GA noted, the question whether an end user knew (or should have known) that he or she was streaming illegal content can be taken into account when dealing with personal liability (para 71). Lastly, although the decision will clearly have strong implications for the streaming of copyrighted works in general, the ECJ limited its decision to the streaming of protected works via the “filmspeler”, so that the possibility of flexible approaches in future cases is not excluded.