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Hyperlink as copyright infringement

By its three questions (1, 2, 3), which should be examined together, the referring court asks, in essence, whether, and in what possible circumstances, the fact of posting, on a website, a hyperlink to protected works, freely available on another website without the consent of the copyright holder, constitutes a ‘communication to the public’ within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29.

In that context, it raises the question of the relevance of the fact that the works in question have not yet been published in another way with the consent of that rightholder, that providing those hyperlinks makes it much easier to find those works, given that the website on which they are available is not easily findable by the general internet public, and that whoever posts those links knew or ought to have been aware of those facts and the fact that that rightholder did not consent to the publication of the works in question on that latter website.

As the Court has previously held, the concept of ‘communication to the public’ includes two cumulative criteria, namely, an ‘act of communication’ of a work and the communication of that work to a ‘public’. Account has to be taken of several complementary criteria, which are not autonomous and are interdependent. Since those criteria may, in different situations, be present to widely varying degrees, they must be applied both individually and in their interaction with one another.

Of those criteria, the Court emphasised, in the first place, the indispensable role played by the user and the deliberate nature of its intervention. The user makes an act of communication when it intervenes, in full knowledge of the consequences of its action, to give access to a protected work to its customers, and does so, in particular, where, in the absence of that intervention, its customers would not, in principle, be able to enjoy the broadcast work. In the second place, it specified that the concept of the ‘public’ refers to an indeterminate number of potential viewers and implies, moreover, a fairly large number of people.

Moreover, it is settled case-law of the Court that, to be categorised as a ‘communication to the public’, a protected work must be communicated using specific technical means, different from those previously used or, failing that, to a ‘new public’, that is to say, to a public that was not already taken into account by the copyright holders when they authorised the initial communication to the public of their work. In the third place, the Court has held that it is relevant that a ‘communication’, within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29, is of a profit-making nature.

It should be noted that the internet is in fact of particular importance to freedom of expression and of information, safeguarded by Article 11 of the Charter, and that hyperlinks contribute to its sound operation as well as to the exchange of opinions and information in that network characterised by the availability of immense amounts of information.

Furthermore, it may be difficult, in particular for individuals who wish to post such links, to ascertain whether website to which those links are expected to lead, provides access to works which are protected and, if necessary, whether the copyright holders of those works have consented to their posting on the internet. Such ascertaining is all the more difficult where those rights have been the subject of sub-licenses. Moreover, the content of a website to which a hyperlink enables access may be changed after the creation of that link, including the protected works, without the person who created that link necessarily being aware of it.

For the purposes of the individualised assessment of the existence of a ‘communication to the public’ within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29, it is accordingly necessary, when the posting of a hyperlink to a work freely available on another website is carried out by a person who, in so doing, does not pursue a profit, to take account of the fact that that person does not know and cannot reasonably know, that that work had been published on the internet without the consent of the copyright holder.

Indeed, such a person, by making that work available to the public by providing other internet users with direct access to it does not, as a general rule, intervene in full knowledge of the consequences of his conduct in order to give customers access to a work illegally posted on the internet. In addition, where the work in question was already available with unrestricted access on the website to which the hyperlink provides access, all internet users could, in principle, already have access to it even the absence of that intervention.

In contrast, where it is established that such a person knew or ought to have known that the hyperlink he posted provides access to a work illegally placed on the internet, for example owing to the fact that he was notified thereof by the copyright holders, it is necessary to consider that the provision of that link constitutes a ‘communication to the public’ within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29.

The same applies in the event that that link allows users of the website on which it is posted to circumvent the restrictions taken by the site where the protected work is posted in order to restrict the public’s access to its own subscribers, the posting of such a link then constituting a deliberate intervention without which those users could not benefit from the works broadcast.

Furthermore, when the posting of hyperlinks is carried out for profit, it can be expected that the person who posted such a link carries out the necessary checks to ensure that the work concerned is not illegally published on the website to which those hyperlinks lead, so that it must be presumed that that posting has occurred with the full knowledge of the protected nature of that work and the possible lack of consent to publication on the internet by the copyright holder. In such circumstances, and in so far as that rebuttable presumption is not rebutted, the act of posting a hyperlink to a work which was illegally placed on the internet constitutes a ‘communication to the public’ within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29.

As regards the case in the main proceedings, it is undisputed that GS Media operates the GeenStijl website and that it provided the hyperlinks to the files containing the photos at issue, hosted on the Filefactory website, for profit. It is also undisputed that Sanoma had not authorised the publication of those photos on the internet. Moreover, it appears (auf deutsch) to follow from the presentation of the facts, as they result from the order for reference, that GS Media was aware of that latter fact and that it cannot therefore rebut the presumption that the posting of those links occurred in full knowledge of the illegal nature of that publication. In those circumstances, it appears that, subject to the checks to be made by the referring court, by posting those links, GS Media effected a ‘communication to the public’, within the meaning of Article 3(1) of Directive 2001/29.

In order to establish whether the fact of posting, on a website, hyperlinks to protected works, which are freely available on another website without the consent of the copyright holder, constitutes a ‘communication to the public’ within the meaning of that provision, it is to be determined whether those links are provided without the pursuit of financial gain by a person who did not know or could not reasonably have known the illegal nature of the publication of those works on that other website or whether, on the contrary, those links are provided for such a purpose, a situation in which that knowledge must be presumed.