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.

Photo: Getty
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The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon