The European Union’s highest appeals court on Tuesday upheld a recently-enacted copyright law that requires platforms like YouTube to actively block infringing content, rejecting a case that argued the new rules could lead to censorship.
Poland claimed the landmark copyright law, which requires sites to screen for pirated material or risk direct liability, violated the EU’s protections for the freedom of expression, but the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that those concerns were overblown.
The new law has “appropriate safeguards” that will “ensure respect for the right to freedom of expression and information of the users of those services,” the top court wrote in a summary of its decision, adding that the new law struck “a fair balance” between free speech and intellectual property.
The ruling, which came as many individual European countries have not yet implemented the new copyright law, was quickly met with praise from the music industry.
IFPI, the group that represents the recording industry outside the US, said the ruling “sends a clear signal” to countries that hadn’t implemented the new rules that they should do so “faithfully in order to help create a fair and well-functioning online environment for the creative industries in Europe.”
Helen Smith, executive chair of European independent labels body IMPALA, said the new copyright law will “rebalance relations between rightholders and platforms, give a recovery boost to the sector at no costs for governments and ensure citizens’ fundamental rights are respected, as well as those of creators.”
Finalized in early 2019, the EU’s so-called copyright directive was hailed as a landmark victory for artists and music companies because it made user-generated platforms like YouTube liable for unlicensed content. At issue in Tuesday’s decision was the law’s Article 17, its most sweeping and controversial provision.
Under earlier EU law, sites like YouTube were merely required to take down particular files when rights owners filed notice, similar to the U.S. system under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – an arrangement that rights owners have long complained gives sites too much leeway to profit from creative works without paying fair prices.
Article 17 flipped the script, requiring services to actively prevent users from uploading such materials. That provision, fiercely opposed by tech giants at the time, effectively requires large platforms to use automated filtering technology or risk huge copyright liability, representing a major change in how copyrights are policed on the internet.
Poland argued that those requirements could undermine the freedom of expression in Europe by forcing platforms to impose draconian new blocking measures. In Tuesday’s decision, the CJEU said the new law was indeed “a limitation on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression,” but that it had been a “proportional” response that was justified by the need to protect copyrights.
In particular, the court noted that the law laid down a clear and precise limit on the measures that may be taken or required. For instance, Article 17 specifically bars any filtering measures that block the upload of lawful content, including parody or pastiche, the court said.
“A filtering system which might not distinguish adequately between unlawful content and lawful content, with the result that its introduction could lead to the blocking of lawful communications, would be incompatible with the right to freedom of expression and information and would not respect the fair balance between that right and the right to intellectual property,” the court wrote.