Following a string of copyright infringement suits that Playboy filed against publishers in recent years for using its copyright-protected images, the American lifestyle and entertainment magazine has won a legal battle to prevent a website from posting links to images published without permission, a decision which could have far wider consequences across the Internet.
The European Union's top court decided on Thursday that posting such links infringes a party's copyrights when the website doing it is seeking to profit from the pictures published without permission.
Sanoma, Playboy's Dutch publisher, filed suit against GeenStijl, one of "the most visited news websites in the Netherlands," asking the court to order that it remove a web link to photos of actress Britt Dekker that appeared in Playboy and which Geenstijl had posted without Playboy's authorization.
According to a statement from the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union ("ECJ"): "It is undisputed that [GeenStijl's parent company, GS Media] provided the hyperlinks to the files containing the photos for profit and that Sanoma had not authorised the publication of those photos on the internet. When hyperlinks are posted for profit, it may be expected that the person who posted such a link should carry out the checks necessary to ensure that the work concerned is not illegally published."
GS Media said the ruling was a blow to press freedom. According to a statement from the company, "If commercial media companies - such as GeenStijl - can no longer freely and fearlessly hyperlink it will be difficult to report on newsworthy new questions, leaked information and internal struggles and unsecure networks in large companies."
While the ECJ noted that the internet "is of particular importance to freedom of expression and of information and that hyperlinks contribute to its sound operation and to the exchange of opinions and information as well," it still ruled in favor of Playboy. As a result, the ruling provides leverage for publishers and other copyright owners that are engaged in fighting internet sites that link to or republish their content without permission.
For those sharing hyperlinks in a commercial context, “there will now be an expectation to carry out checks to ensure that the content has not been illegally published,” Tom Collins, Stevens & Bolton LLP told Bloomberg. “This will inevitably raise some practical difficulties for some online businesses.”
Thursday’s decision comes days before the EU regulators are poised to unveil tough new rules governing online copyright.
* The case is C-160/15, GS Media BV v. Sanoma Media Netherlands BV and Playboy Enterprises International Inc. and Britt Geertruida Dekker.