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Collective management organisation v Social network

SABAM is a management company which represents authors, composers and publishers of musical works. On that basis, it is responsible for, inter alia, authorising the use by third parties of copyright-protected works of those authors, composers and publishers. Netlog runs an online social networking platform where every person who registers acquires a personal space known as a ‘profile’ which the user can complete himself and which becomes available globally.

The most important function of that platform, which is used by tens of millions of individuals on a daily basis, is to build virtual communities through which those individuals can communicate with each other and thereby develop friendships. On their profile, users can, inter alia, keep a diary, indicate their hobbies and interests, show who their friends are, display personal photos or publish video clips.

SABAM claimed that Netlog’s social network also offers all users the opportunity to make use, by means of their profile, of the musical and audio-visual works in SABAM’s repertoire, making those works available to the public in such a way that other users of that network can have access to them without SABAM’s consent and without Netlog paying it any fee. During February 2009, SABAM approached Netlog with a view to concluding an agreement regarding the payment of a fee by Netlog for the use of the SABAM repertoire.

By letter of 2 June 2009, SABAM gave notice to Netlog that it should give an undertaking to cease and desist from making available to the public musical and audio-visual works from SABAM’s repertoire without the necessary authorisation. On 23 June 2009, SABAM had Netlog summoned before the President of the Court of First Instance, Brussels in injunction proceedings, requesting inter alia that Netlog be ordered immediately to cease unlawfully making available musical or audio-visual works from SABAM’s repertoire and to pay a penalty of EUR 1000 for each day of delay in complying with that order.

In that regard, Netlog submitted that granting SABAM’s injunction would be tantamount to imposing on Netlog a general obligation to monitor. In addition, Netlog claimed, without being contradicted by SABAM, that the granting of such an injunction could result in the imposition of an order that it introduce, for all its customers, in abstracto and as a preventative measure, at its own cost and for an unlimited period, a system for filtering most of the information which is stored on its servers in order to identify on its servers electronic files containing musical, cinematographic or audio-visual work in respect of which SABAM claims to hold rights, and subsequently that it block the exchange of such files.

It must be held that the injunction imposed on the hosting service provider requiring it to install the contested filtering system would oblige it to actively monitor almost all the data relating to all of its service users in order to prevent any future infringement of intellectual-property rights. It follows that that injunction would require the hosting service provider to carry out general monitoring.

Moreover, that monitoring has no limitation in time, is directed at all future infringements and is intended to protect not only existing works, but also works that have not yet been created at the time when the system is introduced. Accordingly, such an injunction would result in a serious infringement of the freedom of the hosting service provider to conduct its business since it would require that hosting service provider to install a complicated, costly, permanent computer system at its own expense.

In those circumstances, it must be held that the injunction to install the contested filtering system is to be regarded as not respecting the requirement that a fair balance be struck between, on the one hand, the protection of the intellectual-property right enjoyed by copyright holders, and, on the other hand, that of the freedom to conduct business enjoyed by operators such as hosting service providers. Moreover, the effects of that injunction would not be limited to the hosting service provider, as the contested filtering system may also infringe the fundamental rights of that hosting service provider’s service users, namely their right to protection of their personal data and their freedom to receive or impart information.

Indeed, the injunction requiring installation of the contested filtering system would involve the identification, systematic analysis and processing of information connected with the profiles created on the social network by its users. The information connected with those profiles is protected personal data because, in principle, it allows those users to be identified. Moreover, that injunction could potentially undermine freedom of information, since that system might not distinguish adequately between unlawful content and lawful content, with the result that its introduction could lead to the blocking of lawful communications.