Copyright vs right to freedom of speech

justiceA Verdict by the European courts of Human Rights states that “Copyright can’t stand in the way of the right to freedom of speech”. In a ruling from Strasbourg, judges declared that a conviction based on copyright law for illegally reproducing or publicly communicating copyright material can be regarded as interfering with the right of freedom of expression and information.

Three photographers have won an appeal in Strasbourg after being convicted of copyright theft over pictures they took at a fashion show. Fashion houses in France own the copyright of any pictures taken at their shows. What this means is that someone violating copyright won’t necessarily be convicted: courts will have to justify why a conviction is ‘necessary in a democratic society’. So a prosecutor will have to prove that not only was copyright violated, but that a conviction is necessary.

In other words, the judgment raises the bar – and makes it harder for someone to be convicted.

The judgment comes after three photographers were convicted in France for copyright infringement when pictures taken by photographers Olivier Claisse, Robert Ashby Donald and Marcio Madeira Moraeso at a fashion show were published on a website that charged others to use them.French fashion houses have since 1968 had control over images taken at their shows, so the publication of the pictures was in breach of their copyright. The photos were taken without permission of the fashion houses, and so the Paris court of appeal found the three in breach of the fashion houses’ copyright. The photographers were ordered to pay damages totalling Euros 255,000, plus costs.

The three appealed, which was rejected in 2008.

They were told that they could not rely on the exception in French copyright law which allows the reproduction of works. They then appealed to Strasbourg, saying that their rights to freedom of expression and information had been infringed. The EHCR found last month that the fashion show was a completely commercial undertaking and didn’t have an important democratic function that needed to be protected.

Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group in London welcomed the verdict, saying: “These are entirely sensible observations from the court.  Copyright can conflict with the right to free expression and the desire to disseminate information.This is good news for civil liberties but equally the principle of copyright is upheld. The court makes it clear that copyright isn’t an automatic right to restrict people’s free speech.”

The ‘sensible’ ruling on copyright from EHCR has been welcomed by Open Rights group

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