Millions of businesses whose staff click on links generated by news aggregators could be breaking the law if the aggregating firm doesn't pay a fee to newspaper publishers to serve up these links, according to a ruling by the Court of Appeal on Wednesday.
Aggregating firm Meltwater and the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) had challenged an initial ruling by the High Court brought by the Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA) that a fee must be paid for providing links in a commercial setting.
However, the decision was upheld, meaning that Meltwater will be forced to pay the fee to the NLA otherwise its users will be breaking the law unless they pay a fee to the NLA themselves.
One crumb of comfort for Meltwater and the PRCA was that the Court of Appeal overturned the initial ruling that newspaper headlines could be covered by copyright, removing possible copyright infringement cases against aggregators displaying headlines.
Jorn Lyseggen, chief executive of Meltwater, said that the ruling is a blow for the internet and that regular online users will suffer the most from the decision.
"The ability to browse the internet without fear of infringing copyright is a fundamental principle," he said.
"Society is not served by this ruling and it would be absurd if interpretation of the law should clash so fundamentally with how millions of people use the internet every day."
However, Mark Taylor, a lawyer at Hogan Lovells, argued that, while the decision is being portrayed by Meltwater as an attack on the freedom of the internet, there is logic to the stance being taken by the NLA.
"In practice [the ruling] is drawing a distinction between the situation where a person chooses to prepare and distribute a series of web links, headlines and extracts drawn from a third party's online articles, and where a user browses the web," he said.
"The decision is consistent with previous copyright decisions, although whether copyright law is in need of updating on this point is a matter for debate."
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More than 800,000 home users could be affected