In a recent landmark judgment,1 the Court of Justice of the European Union found that posting a presentation including a copyright-protected photograph online constitutes infringement of the author’s rights. Does this mean we can no longer include photos found on the Internet to illustrate our projects?

School Presentation

The case concerned a secondary school pupil who included a photograph of the Spanish city of Córdoba by a German photographer Dirk Renckhoff in her language workshop presentation. She had downloaded the photo from a travel website, where it had been freely accessible with the consent of the author. The student used it in her project, stating the source next to the photograph. Because the school then posted the presentation on its website, the photographer demanded an order prohibiting the reproduction of his photo and EUR 400 worth of damages.

Legal Issue

Mr Renckhoff argued that the author holds the exclusive right to authorise or prohibit any dissemination of his work. According to him, the school ought to have sought his authorisation before reposting the photograph. The highest national court in Germany decided to refer the matter to the EU Court, seeking to clarify whether posting a photograph on one website that was previously published on another website without any restrictions and with the consent of the photographer infringes the author’s rights.

Victory for the Author

Adopting a narrow reading of the Copyright Directive,2 the Court ruled in favour of the photographer. The judges found that by reposting the photograph, the school had communicated it to a new public without the consent of the original copyright holder. Thus, the author was left with little or no power to decide on the context and the duration of his work being published. This outcome signifies a triumph for intellectual property rights holders in the EU, ensuring a high level of control over the publication of their work.

Implications for Businesses

While the pupil and the school could argue that the presentation including the photograph was published for non-commercial purposes, the same rarely applies when businesspeople are concerned. The Renckhoff case illustrates that any reproduction of copyright-protected material without the consent of its author infringes the rights of the latter. The ease with which the image may be downloaded and whether the person reposting the image credits the original source alongside the reproduction are immaterial.

With the increasingly strict enforcement of copyright laws, it is important to choose the materials to accompany business and other projects with extra care. When preparing pitches, presentations and reports, we need to respect the authors’ rights by obtaining their consent or by opting for royalty-free materials instead.