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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Fanging out: why do vampire bats groom each other so often?

New research shows social grooming and food sharing are more common adaptive traits in vampire bats than other species.

A new study has shown social grooming behaviour is more prevalent in vampire bat species than their non-parasitic variants. The researchers used the species Desmodus rotundus and found that the bats spent 1.5-6.3 per cent of their time engaged in social grooming, compared with just 0.5 per cent in other species.

It's not exactly a secret that a range of animals engage in social interactions. This includes hyenas who simply greet each other to increase cooperation. However, recent studies have focussed on the use of social grooming being used by animals to maintain stable relationships.  

For example, age and body weight have been linked to the amount of social grooming given by dairy cows, and licking and head rubbing are used by lions to create bonds between individuals. Vampire bats also protect each other against bats with no social links to a group. Each roost site usually contains 8-12 female adults and their offspring, defended on the outside by an adult male.

Vampire bats not only show social grooming through the cleaning of each others' bodies, but also by sharing food through the ever-appetising regurgitation process. However, both of these behaviours are directly linked to one another.

When a pair of vampire bats are grooming each other and cleaning each other's bodies, they assess the bulging size of the abdomen. This allows them to check if their partner has eaten, and whether they need to regurgitate and share food.

Sharing food is a vital part of feeding and cooperation in vampire bats, as almost 20 per cent of bats don't find any food each night. This starts a ticking clock, as most bats can starve to death in under 72 hours.

The importance of social bonding is reflected in the anatomy of the bat. In proportion to their relatively small body size, vampire bats have a very large brain and neocortex. Previous studies have shown the size of the neocortex is linked to more complex social behaviour and bonding.

The authors of the paper conclude that social grooming acts as a way for bats to display their hunger to partners, or alternatively, that they are willing to share food, and for the need to sustain close bonds.