Welcome news for users of internet hyperlinks; the top European court has ruledthat using hyperlinks to freely available news articles is allowed.

Swedish newspaper journalists had complained that the use of hyperlinks to connect to their articles from a news searching website, Retriever Sverige, was wrong. But the articles were already available on newspaper’s own freely accessible website. The court decided that there had been no communication of the articles to a ‘new public’ and so the journalists could not object.

In contrast, if an article had only been available to subscribers to the newspaper’s website, but the hyperlink gave access to non-subscribers, then there would have been publication to a ‘new public’ requiring the journalists’ consent.

The court added that it would not make any difference whether or not it would be clear to the user clicking on the link that they were being redirected to a new site.

This decision is based on a law dealing with copyright in today's information society. The court said that EU countries cannot give a greater degree of protection in their own laws. European law is meant to be harmonised in this area. Differences in the level of protection between countries would lead to problems in cross-EU business.

Although the judgment seems clear, there remain questions around the effect of a website's terms and conditions of use, even where content is freely available. Providers of online material may choose to respond by restricting their free access content, and tightening up their terms of use.