(The original Italian version is also published on Diritto 24 – Il Sole 24 Ore)

On 15 January, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“ECJ”) ruled in case C-30/ 14 on the contractual protection of the database of the airline Ryanair, containing the data (e.g. times and prices) of its flights.

The case arose from the fact that Ryanair had acted in the Netherlands against the operator of a website through which consumers could research the flight data of low cost airlines, compare the prices and, for a fee, book a flight. This site drew data, among other things, from the database contained on the Ryanair website, despite the fact that anyone accessing the latter was required to accept its terms of use, which included the following: “The use of automated systems or software to extract data from this website or www.bookryanair.com for commercial purposes (‘screen scraping’) is prohibited”.

The Dutch judge handling the case had concluded that the Ryanair database did not constitute a database protectable under Directive 96/9/EC, which provides for two types of protection: copyright protection for creative databases constituting the author’s own intellectual creation; and the protection on the basis of a sui generis right for databases which, although not possessing the requirements to benefit from copyright protection, had implied a substantial investment on the part of their creator (we have already spoken about these different rights here on this blog). On that basis, the judge had then asked the ECJ if the Directive’s provisions providing for certain rights – which cannot be derogated by contract – for legitimate users of the protected databases were to be applied also to a database that is not protected by the Directive (such as that of Ryanair): for example, the right to “extract and re-utilise insubstantial parts of the contents” of non-creative databases protected based on the sui generis right.

In the decision under review, the Court concludes that those provisions are not in fact applicable to a database that is not protected under the Directive; therefore the holder may well impose contractual limitations on its use (such as those imposed by Ryanair).

Consistent with this conclusion, the ECJ also rejects the objection of the operator of the website in question, that such an interpretation of the Directive would be “capable of reducing the interest in claiming legal protection instituted by that directive in that the author of a database protected by that directive, unlike the author of a database which is not so protected, does not have the contractual freedom to limit the rights of users of its database”.  “Such arguments”, the Court states, “ignore the legal and economic interest that the system of automatic protection represents for a person who has invested in the creation of a database, harmonised in the Member States, which attaches to the exclusive right under copyright to reserve the right to perform the various acts referred to in Article 5 of Directive 96/9 and the right to prohibit under the sui generis right the acts referred to in Articles 7(1) and (5) and 8(2) thereof. As the Commission stated at the hearing, the benefit of that protection does not require any administrative formalities to be fulfilled or any prior contractual arrangement”.