The High Court ruling which could break the internet

Could linking to a website be copyright infringement?

The Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA) is a little-known victim of the disruptive forces of the internet, but in trying to fight for survival, they may just have broken the whole thing. 

Created as a private company owned by a consortium of news organisations in 1988, it oversees the granting of blanket licenses to the copyright of newspapers. Their primary purpose is to grant media monitoring agencies (companies monitor the press for clients, usually PR firms) the permissions they need to send out copies of newspaper articles without having to negotiate payment for every clipping.

For obvious reasons, this revenue stream has come under attack in the age of the internet. Why pay for permission to make a photocopy of the Guardian when you can just send your client a link to the story on Guardian.com? But the NLA decided to carry on making media monitors, even ones which operated entirely online, pay for a license, and last year sued a holdout firm, Meltwater News, in a test case.

The issue eventually made it to the Court of Appeal, where it was decided that the NLA did have the authority to force Meltwater, and other media monitors, to pay the fees. In itself, the case is small-fry – media monitoring agencies are not, after all, a massive part of the economy. But the legal reasoning behind the judgement is far more wide-ranging, and coming from the Court of Appeal, now constitutes a key part of the case law that drives the legal system of England and Wales.

In the High Court, the activities of media monitoring firms were held to require licenses because the mere act of visiting a website involves making a local copy of that page. That copy, it was decided, is normally provided under an implicit license from the site-owner, but when a media monitor visits the page, they need to pay for an explicit license. In addition, there was a second, even more damaging, claim. It was decreed that a headline was a literary work independent of its article, and that again, media monitoring firms had to pay for a license to distribute it. The High Court also ruled that Meltwater's clients – mainly PR agencies – needed their own license to browse through the links sent to them.

Much of the ruling seemed at odds with existing copyright law. The technological necessity of downloading a copy of a webpage in order to view it has historically been allowed as a "transient copy" under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, while titles – of which headlines are surely a subset – have never been copyrightable

Moreover, the European Union accepts that the act of visiting a website necessitates the creation of a copy. As a result, it requires that fees not be charged if the temporary copies made are "carried out for the sole purpose of enabling... a lawful use of a work". In fact, this exemption is the only one which is mandatory. Yet the Court ignored the directive, and decided instead that Meltwater's clients had made "a prima facie copyright infringement" by clicking on the links in Meltwater's briefing.

Just think about that. Clicking on a link, even one which leads to entirely legal content, could nonetheless constitute copyright infringement. The ruling puts at risk the basic skeleton of the internet.

The NLA has no plans to actually do anything but enforce their existing licensing authority online. But the whole point of case law is that it applies to more than just the participants in the original case. There's no telling who the next person to attempt to use this law will be. And of course, it's not like relying on the discretion of the authorities works out particularly well.

The law needs to be changed. But when an amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform bill was proposed last month which would do just that, the minister in charge, George Lamb, abdicated responsibility, arguing that "ultimately, the matter is for the courts to determine."

The Supreme Court won't hear the case until February 2013, leaving months of legal uncertainty. But in the end, that is besides the point. The question is not what the law does, in fact, say, but what it ought to say. The government does not need to wait for the Supreme Court to decide on the law as it stands to change the law to make it absolutely explicit that linking with a headline is not infringing, and to clarify that viewing a website does not involve making an actionable copy. It should have got moving on that the minute the case made it to the High Court; instead, it seems determined to put it off as long as possible.

Update: The NLA responds

David Pugh, the Managing Director of the NLA, writes:

Alex, I think the internet is made of sterner stuff than you suggest!

I don’t think it is in any danger of falling over any time soon as a result of the NLA v Meltwater case, which simply established that media monitoring companies that copy published content and use it to provide a paid-for ‘web cutting’ service for clients need a licence – and so do the clients paying for the service. That simply ensures a fair return for publishers.

The ruling does not mean that anyone clicking on a news website or sending a link to a friend is now a criminal!

The government has not been swayed by the minority lobby that was unhappy with the decisions of the High Court and Court of Appeal and now seeks to encourage MPs to use the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill to rush through ill-conceived legislation that is not required.

I hope Pugh is right that the internet is strong enough to resist, but I disagree with his characterisation of the case. What he describes is all the NLA wanted to establish; but in doing so, a precedent was set which greatly expanded the scope of copyright online.

And while no-one involved is criminalised (this is a matter of civil, not criminal law), there is the chance this new precedent will be used in unforseen ways. As an example, earlier this year, Wonga received extraordinarily bad PR over a page they had set up on their website aimed at selling loans to students. I, as with many other journalists, linked to that page, with the headline. The precedent set by NLA v Meltwater could provide them grounds to sue for infringement.

That cannot be allowed to happen. If our current copyright legislation is open to interpretation that it does, then it is out-of-date for the internet age, and must be refreshed.

Photograph taken from Etsy user pixelparty

A sad mac. Photograph: Etsy/pixelparty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era