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EU court rules 11-word snippets can violate copyright

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Amidst angry howls by the Associated Press over the internet CTRL C-ing its stories, Europe's highest court has whittled the line of potential copyright infringement down to just 11 little words.

The bar was set by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) this month in a legal dispute between the Danish media monitoring firm Infopaq and the country's newspaper industry body, Danske Dagblades Forening (DDF).

Infopaq would scan various newspapers using image-to-text software then process the files to identify certain keywords its clients wanted tracked. If such a keyword was found in the story, that word along with five words on either side were captured.

The company would then send its clients a report containing the captured snippets and information on where they were obtained.

Infopaq disputed a claim that the process requires consent from rightholders by taking DDF to court. It requested the organization be forced to declare its reproductions were peaches and cream under the EU Copyright Directive, which makes exceptions for "transient" or incidental copying.

But a court dismissal, appeal, and passing-along-to-the-ECJ later, and Infopaq's arse-covering action was shot down.

The high court ruled that although the original text file was deleted, as soon as Infopaq put the 11 words unto paper it was a potential copyright violation.

From the decision:

...the possibility may not be ruled out that certain isolated sentences, or even parts of sentences in the text in question, may be suitable for conveying to the reader the originality of a publication such as a newspaper or article, by communicating to that reader an element which is, in itself, the expression of the intellectual creation of the author of that article.

In other words, the program might catch the good bits that make a newspaper article worthy of copyright protection. But the ECJ said it's up to national courts to decide if any particular article is "original in the sense that they are their author's own intellectual creation" and thus protected by copyright.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press has been pushing the boundaries of fair use to go after websites that lift as few as 33 words. It would appear the AP now has some precedent to attack so long as it can convince national courts its stories qualify for protection. ®

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