The Supreme Court case which didn't break the internet

Do you "copy" a website just by reading it? No, thankfully.

The Supreme Court has ruled on NLA v PRCA, the case which could break, or save, the internet.

Some background: the Newspaper Licensing Agency took Meltwater, a media monitoring firm to court over whether or not it had to pay licence fees for sending links to its customers. Traditionally, monitoring firms had to pay the licensing agency for the right to distribute clippings of newspapers, because photocopying a newspaper is clearly an act of copying that requires a license. But as everything moved online, that clarity became blurred; and hence, a court case was brought.

We first reported on the case after it made it to the High Court in August, when an astonishingly bad precedent was set. It was ruled that viewing a website on a computer was an act of copying which required a license, just as if you had photocopied a newspaper. Although the ruling was made with regards to a specific scenario, it was general enough to apply to general use of the internet. Clicking on a link, even one which lead to entirely legal content, would, under that ruling, constitute copyright infringement. At the time, I said it "[put] at risk the basic skeleton of the internet."

Thankfully, the case was appealed to the Supreme Court (by the PRCA, a trade body of which Meltwater is a member), where it was ruled today that temporary copies made solely for the purpose of viewing copyrighted material are not infringing. The decision extends copyright exemption to "temporary copies made for the purpose of browsing by an unlicensed end-user", according to the judgement. It is based on European law which "identified very clearly the problem which has arisen" in this case, but which didn't quite specify that this particular method of viewing was covered. Once it is accepted that that law does cover the temporary copies made in this case, "much of the argument which the courts below accepted unravels."

Writing for the majority, Lord Sumption also accepted that the previous ruling would have had wide-ranging effects:

The issue has reached this court because it affects the operation of a service which is being made available on a commercial basis. But the same question potentially affects millions of non-commercial users of the internet who may, no doubt unwittingly, be incurring civil liability by viewing copyright material on the internet without the authority of the rights owner, for example because it has been unlawfully uploaded by a third party. Similar issues arise when viewers watch a broadcast on a digital television or a subscription television programme via a set-top box.

Since the ruling has implications for European law, it has been referred to the European Courts of Justice, which will now consider the question before any final ruling is issued by the Supreme Court.

Until then, and hopefully after, you can continue to use your computers as you were. Carry on.

Photograph: Getty Images

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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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”