Freeze Frame: EU Copyright Holders Entitled to Restrict Framing

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In a case referred by German authorities, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) resolved a dispute between a visual arts copyright collecting society and a cultural heritage foundation involving a digital library that includes images and links to the institution providing the subject matter. The CJEU affirmed that the principle of the right of communication to the public is subject to technical measures to prevent infringement. VG Bild-Kunst v. Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Case C-392/19 (CJEU, 9 March 2021) (Grand Chamber).

Takeaways:

  • Framing and inline linking remain generally permitted. Both forms of linking do not necessarily constitute an act governed by copyright law.
  • Where the copyright holder has adopted or obliged licensees to employ, measures to restrict framing so as to limit access to its work from websites other than that of its licensees, framing must be authorized by the rights holders concerned.

Framing

At the core of this decision is “framing.” The technique of framing consists of dividing a website page into several frames and posting within one of them, by means of a clickable link or an embedded internet link (inline linking), an element from another site in order to hide from users the original environment to which that element belongs.

Background

The decision was based on a request for a preliminary ruling in proceedings between VG Bild-Kunst, a visual arts copyright collecting society in Germany, and SPK, a German cultural heritage foundation. The proceedings concerned VG Bild-Kunst’s refusal to conclude a license agreement with SPK for the use of its catalogue of works unless the agreement contained a provision obliging SPK as a licensee, when using protected work and subject matter covered by that agreement, to implement effective technological measures to prevent third parties from framing such protected work or subject matter.

The German Federal Court of Justice referred the following question to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling:

Does the embedding of a work—which is available on a freely accessible website with the consent of the right holder—in the website of a third party by way of framing constitute communication to the public of that work within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29 where it circumvents protection measures against framing adopted or imposed by the right holder?

The Decision

The CJEU’s reasoning behind the above ” takeaways” is that by adopting or obliging licensees to employ, technological measures limiting access to works from websites other than those on which the copyright owner has authorized communication to the public of such works, a copyright holder is deemed to have expressed its intention to attach qualifications to its authorization to communicate those works to the public by means of the internet, in order to confine the public for those works solely to the users of one particular website.

Consequently, where the copyright holder has adopted or obliged licensees to employ, measures to restrict framing so as to limit access to its work from websites other than that of its licensees, the initial act of making available on the original website and the secondary act of making available, by means of the technique of framing, constitute different communications to the public, and each such act consequently must be authorized by the rights holders concerned.

The CJEU noted that in order to ensure legal certainty and the smooth functioning of the internet, the copyright holder cannot be allowed to limit its consent by means other than effective technological measures, within the meaning of Articles 6(1) and (3) of Directive 2001/29.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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