The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has given its judgement in the Meltwater case holding that internet browsing is not an infringement of copyright. The ruling resulted from a reference made by the UK’s Supreme Court. The case was brought by the Newspaper Licensing Association against Meltwater plus the Public Relations Consultants Association, representing customers of Meltwater’s online media monitoring services. The question was whether internet users who view websites on their computers without downloading or printing them out are committing infringements of copyright by reason of the creation of on-screen copies and cached copies, unless they have the authorisation of the rights holders to make such copies.

The NLA took the view that Meltwater’s customers needed authorisation in the shape of a licence from the copyright holders to receive Meltwater’s service. The PRCA disagreed on the basis that, if all their members did was view the reports on Meltwater’s website, then that fell within Article 5 of Directive 2001/29/EC on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society. Article 5 sets out exemptions from the general rule that the copyright holder must authorise any reproduction of his protected work. Article 5 has to be interpreted in such a way as to ensure the development and operation of new technologies for the benefit of users but also safeguard the rights and interests of copyright holders.

The CJEU held that copies on the user’s computer screen and the copies in the internet ‘cache’ of that computer’s hard disk, made by an end-user in the course of viewing a website, were within the exemption of Article 5 so the users were not infringing copyright. That decision was reached on the basis that the onscreen and cached copies were temporary, transient or incidental in nature and constituted an integral and essential part of a technological process. The creation of the copies is the automatic result of browsing the internet and requires no human intervention other than the decision to access the website in question. The on-screen copies and the cached copies are retained only for the ordinary duration of the processes associated with internet usage. In addition the CJEU was satisfied that website publishers have to obtain permission from copyright owners to publish material which safeguards the legitimate interests of rights holders. So a user simply viewing the content on screen does not conflict with a normal exploitation of the work.

So, the good news for internet users and online service providers is that normal on-screen browsing of legitimately published material will not infringe copyright.