CopyrightThe recent Donald Ashby (sub nom Ashby Donalddecision of the European Court of Human Rights has revived interest in the relationship between copyright and freedom of expression. The litigation arose because two of the defendant photographers had put on their US website pictures taken by the third at the Paris fashion shows.

Under French law that requires the permission of the couture houses. The highest French Court had confirmed their conviction for criminal copyright infringement. The photographers lost their appeal to the Human Rights Court. But despite the loss the Court’s decision does finally explode any residual myth that copyright has no impact on freedom of expression.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects freedom of expression as a qualified right. In Ashby the Court explicitly held that the appellants’ activities fell within the exercise of the right of freedom of expression and that the conviction interfered with that. It was therefore necessary to consider whether the interference was justified. However the Court held that in this particular case it could not find that either the photographers’ conviction or the financial penalties were a disproportionate interference. Particular account had to be taken of the Contracting State’s broad margins of appreciation for both commercial speech and the protection of rights of others.

In the subsequent case of Neije and Sunde the ECtHR found that the appellants’ criminal convictions for operating the Pirate Bay site interfered with their right to freedom of expression, since they had put in place the means for others to impart and receive information within the meaning of Article 10 of the Convention.  In this case the Court found that there were weighty reasons for the interference and held the complaint to be manifestly ill-founded and inadmissible.

Ashby provides a good opportunity to review the various ways in which copyright and freedom of expression can interact. Some have asserted that copyright and freedom of expression exist on different planes which do not intersect at all. In 2000 Mance L.J. said in Hyde Park Residence Ltd v Yelland: “Copyright does not lie on the same continuum as, nor is it the antithesis of, freedom of expression.” 

Eighteen months later Lord Phillips, giving the judgment of the whole Court of Appeal in Ashdown v Telegraph Group Ltd, said the opposite:

Thus copyright is antithetical to freedom of expression. It prevents all, save the owner of the copyright, from expressing information in the form of the literary work protected by the copyright.”

The US Supreme Court in Golan v Holder has recognised that “some restriction on expression is the inherent and intended effect of every grant of copyright.”

Some have argued that, even accepting that copyright does interfere with freedom of expression, the necessary balance between that and other legitimate interests is struck entirely internally within copyright legislation. Copyright is therefore not susceptible to external human rights scrutiny.

In England that argument was put to rest in Ashdown. If any doubt remained at a European human rights level, Ashby has put paid to it. As a matter of EU law, the CJEU in SABAM v Scarlet has stated that intellectual property rights are neither inviolable nor must be absolutely protected, but must be balanced against other fundamental rights including freedom of expression.

Ashby on its facts was an obvious interference with the photographers’ Article 10 rights, even if the ECtHR was unable to find the interference disproportionate. The defendants had put the photographs of the Paris catwalk shows on their public website. The fashion houses were using copyright to try to limit and control public dissemination of images of the shows. The engagement with the right to receive and impart information is clear.

Copyright can engage freedom of expression more subtly. Depending on the scope of copyright and the nature of the remedies against infringers (or in some cases even against non-infringers), when applied to any particular set of facts there are many ways in which copyright can step over the line and disproportionately interfere with Article 10 rights.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to identify clear dividing lines between proportionate and disproportionate interference. This is partly because copyright is itself regarded, at least in European human rights law, as a property right that has to be weighed in a balancing exercise with other rights such as freedom of expression. It is also because the degree of interference may result not just from one aspect of copyright, but from the combination of several; and because the impact depends on the factual circumstances of each individual case.

Different features of copyright can engage freedom of expression on different axes. In this sense copyright can perhaps be likened to a mixing console, on which each aspect of copyright that potentially engages freedom of expression is represented by a slide control. One control set to maximum may itself be disproportionate, either per se or in its application to a particular set of facts. Equally the combined effect of several controls set to less than maximum could also be disproportionate.

Take the example of an “originality” slide control. If the slider were set at a level that restricted the use of high level ideas as well as detailed expression, then the interference with the Article 10 right might be disproportionate in itself; but even if not, the interference would be that much the greater if the remedy for infringement were an injunction preventing publication as opposed to a small amount of monetary compensation that permitted continuing dissemination.

Rather than attempt to identify a clear line between proportionality and disproportionality, or examine how rights should be balanced against each other, this article aims to do no more than describe the mixing console: identify each slider whose movement up or down the scale is capable of engaging Article 10 rights to a varying degree.

The focus of this article is on engagement with freedom of expression and nothing else. Arguments of all kinds can be deployed for and against particular aspects of copyright. No given argument necessarily has anything to do with freedom of expression. If it does not, it won’t feature here.

We should not forget some less prominent creatures of statute such as legislation prohibiting circumvention of copyright protection measures, and EU database right (which is turning out in some respects to be more restrictive than copyright). However for the sake of simplicity this article is limited for the most part to copyright. It is written largely from a UK perspective. Copyright in other countries may differ.

The copyright and freedom of expression mixing console

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In short, the fundamental right of free speech relates to the free flow of ideas, opinion and information.

Our first group of slide controls concerns the extent of copyright and its interaction with each of these three aspects of freedom of speech.

Slider 1: From Expression to Ideas

It is a truism, if not always an illuminating one, that copyright protects expression and not ideas. Jacob J. (as he then was) cautioned in IBCOS Computers Limited v Barclays Mercantile Highland Finance Limited [1994] FSR 275 that while merely taking a sufficiently general idea does not infringe, to take a detailed “idea” may do so. It is a question of degree.

Wherever and however fuzzily this line may be drawn, one reason why it exists is the recognition that all expression, however original, owes something to what has gone before –and the more general the previous knowledge the more likely it is to do so. To insist that all expression should embody only completely original ideas, shorn of anything that has gone before, would be to require silence. If we were to push the expression/idea copyright slider too far, the babble of voices would gradually diminish to nothing. Well of course it wouldn’t, since such a law would lose all legitimacy long before silence fell. But the serious point is that the idea/expression slide control engages freedom of expression more intensely towards the ideas end of the scale.

The proposition that the idea/expression dichotomy engages freedom of expression was recognised in, for instance, the US Supreme Court decision in Eldred v Ashcroft:

“… copyright law contains built-in First Amendment accommodations. … First, it distinguishes between ideas and expression and makes only the latter eligible for copyright protection. … As we said in Harper & Row, this idea/expression dichotomy strike[s] a definitional balance between the First Amendment and the Copyright Act by permitting free communication of facts while still protecting an author’s expression. … Due to this distinction, every idea, theory, and fact in a copyrighted work becomes instantly available for public exploitation at the moment of publication.”

At the other end of the scale it may be said that if expression is protected too narrowly, then creativity is inhibited through lack of sufficient incentive to multiply its fruits. This is a common enough argument. Copyright was described in the Harper & Row decision of the US Supreme Court as ‘the engine of free expression’. This argument engages a fundamental right of freedom of expression only if one regards the State as having a positive obligation to promote freedom of expression, as opposed to simply refraining from interference with it.

Slider 2: From Expression to Opinion

The right of freedom of expression is most robustly protected by international human rights law when opinion, especially political opinion, is at stake. So European human rights law has developed a hierarchy in which individual political expression is more robustly protected than, say, commercial speech. As reiterated in Ashby, the ECHR allows Contracting States a greater margin of appreciation (i.e. allows them more latitude to interfere) with commercial speech.

The potential for copyright to interfere on the opinion axis is high, even when an element of expression is taken. Hence the existence of various exceptions for activities such as criticism and review and for parody. These define circumstances and conditions in and under which it is legitimate to take some element of expression. However, specific exceptions are not always adequate. In the USA the more flexible fair use defence is recognised as an essential part of copyright’s accommodation with the First Amendment:

“We then described the “traditional contours” of copyright protection, i.e., the “idea/expression dichotomy” and the “fair use” defense. Both are recognized in our jurisprudence as “built-in First Amendment accommodations.” (Golan v Holder)

In Europe, for political expression direct recourse has sometimes successfully been made to external Article 10 considerations. In the Netherlands the Nadia Plesner Darfurnica case, although it concerned Community design right rather than copyright, is an example of freedom of political expression trumping the exercise of an intellectual property right.

Slider 3: From Originality to Facts

Works of authorship – literary, artistic, dramatic and musical works – attract copyright only if they are original.

Originality is closely related to infringement. For instance the infringement test as formulated by the EU Court of Justice in Infopaqis whether a part of the author’s own intellectual creation has been taken.

So the level at which the threshold for originality is set affects not only whether a work is protected at all by copyright, but what kind of use of the work the copyright owner can prevent. The degree of use that can be prevented is also affected by whether the infringement threshold is, for instance, the taking of any part or the taking of a substantial part.

Where the work contains factual information, a low originality threshold can protect not just the author’s form of expression, but the facts themselves. Facts are at the most basic level of information that humans may wish to impart or receive. The extract from Eldred v Ashcroft quoted above makes clear the engagement with freedom of expression.

A low originality threshold may overly restrict the ability to recommunicate facts imparted through the means of a copyright work. The potential for this consequence is why exceptions exist such as fair dealing for the purpose of reporting current events. These may be quite limited. For instance in UK law the exception does not apply to photographs.

Beyond copyright the ability to recommunicate facts is increasingly restricted by database right, which is specifically aimed at protecting otherwise unprotectable collections of data. Database right has few exceptions, an investment rather than an originality threshold and (as currently interpreted by the courts) hair trigger infringement criteria.

Slider 4: From Dissemination to Reference

Copyright has always sought to prevent the dissemination of infringing copies. It has typically stopped short of preventing people from referring to the existence of infringing material, whether in a library index, in a footnote to an article, in a newspaper or whatever.

When copyright, in its enthusiasm to prevent the spread of infringing copies, seeks to prevent people from acknowledging their existence or pointing to where they may be found, it engages the right of freedom of speech.

In the digital and online world it does so most clearly when it seeks to characterise linking and similar acts as infringement, or bears on the creation and use of search engines. For activities such as image or video search the engagement may take on further aspects, for instance if effective referencing depends on the ability to make and store a thumbnail of the image or of a frame of video.

Slider 5 From Zero to Perpetuity

It is difficult to identify any particular duration of copyright that triggers engagement with freedom of expression; although if it is accepted that any copyright protection necessarily affects freedom of expression, then the longer the duration the greater the interference. The longest durations of copyright tend to give rise to significant orphan works issues – an especially visible engagement with the freedom to receive information.

Attempts in the USA to challenge copyright extensions on First Amendment grounds have not fared well. In Eldred v Ashcroft term extension to life plus 70 years involving resurrection of expired copyright for some works was held not to offend against the First Amendment. In Golan v Holder introduction of copyright for foreign works previously in the public domain was held not to violate the First Amendment.

Our second group of slide controls concerns who infringes and by doing what.

This is part one of a two part post.  The second part will appear later in the week.

This post originally appeared on the Cyberleagle Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks