European Court of Human Rights Decision on Copyright and Freedom of Expression

The case of Ashby Donald et al. France, a decision last month of the European Court of Human Rights (Application n o 36769/08), is interesting in that it asserts a legally relevant tension between copyright law and the freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 10 of the European Convention, which provides:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions and freedom to receive and impart information and ideas without interference there may be public authorities and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema to a licensing regime.

2. The exercise of these freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the national security, the territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder and crime prevention, the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure confidential information or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

The defendants were photographers who took unauthorized photographs of a fashion show and published them in a commercial setting. They were charged in France with “counterfeiting” under the IP law. The state is involved here, which makes infringement actions rather different in France:

9. Les requérants furent cités par le procureur de la République devant le tribunal correctionnel de Paris pour « contrefaçon », au sens des articles L. 335-2 et L. 335-3 du code de la propriété intellectuelle, par « diffusion ou représentation d’œuvre de l’esprit au mépris des droits de l’auteur ».

Although the defendants ultimately lost the appeal against their conviction and (large) fine, the court decided that their argument was material that the use of the IP law interfered with their right to freedom of expression. It ruled that the conviction of the defendants did indeed interfere with their right to expression, but that it should stand nevertheless because it was saved by the equivalent, in effect, of section 1 of our Charter, i.e. it was:

“prescribed by law”, pursued one or more legitimate aims under paragraph 2 and was “necessary in a democratic society” to achieve one or more of them.
[translation by Google and me]

[original] « prévue par la loi », elle poursuivait un ou plusieurs buts légitimes au regard du paragraphe 2 et était « nécessaire, dans une société démocratique », pour le ou les atteindre.

According to an entry on the ECHR Blog (in English), this is the first time that the ECHR has ruled that a conviction for violation of copyright law may be an interference with a persons right to freedom of expression under Article 10. The blog entry explains and translates into English much of the judgment.

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