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Meta search engines may infringe database rights: EU Court of Justice

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Operators of websites in the EU that allow users to search for content on other sites and then display the information on their own site may be in breach of intellectual property laws as a result of a recent ruling by the EU's highest court.

In a judgment issued last month, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) said that aggregators' re-utilisation of data in this way can, in certain circumstances, be a breach of content owners' database rights.

Under the EU's Database Directive database creators that have made "qualitatively or quantitatively a substantial investment in either the obtaining, verification or presentation of the contents" can "prevent extraction and/or re-utilization of the whole or a substantial part, evaluated qualitatively and/or quantitatively, of the contents of that database".

The CJEU was asked by a court in the Netherlands for helping in determining to what extent the use of "meta search engines" can impact on database rights. A meta search engine transfers users' queries to other search engines in order to locate and display relevant results from a broader range of sources.

In the Netherlands a meta search engine operated by Innoweb came under challenge from a website that aggregated online adverts for the sale of cars. Wegener's AutoTrack website allowed users to conduct a search for cars in accordance with various criteria.

The Innoweb meta search engine, which features on its GasPedaal car sales site, allows users to search in real time using the AutoTrack tool and through a number of other sources before displaying the results in a centralised fashion. The CJEU said that "a very small part of the contents" of AutoTrack's collection of information is displayed on the GasPedaal site when users search for content that is found via the AutoTrack tool.

Wegener originally won a ruling in the Netherlands that found Innoweb was liable for infringing its database rights, but Innoweb appealed that decision on the basis that it does not extract the whole or a substantial part of Wegener's database. However, before issuing a judgment on the case, the appeal court asked the CJEU for guidance on how to interpret EU database laws in the context of meta search engines.

The CJEU said that a website operator can be said to re-utilise either all or a substantial part of a database by making a meta search engine available if certain criteria is met.

If the meta search engine "provides the end user with a search form which essentially offers the same range of functionality as the search form on the database site; ‘translates’ queries from end users into the search engine for the database site ‘in real time’, so that all the information on that database is searched through; and presents the results to the end user using the format of its website, grouping duplications together into a single block item but in an order that reflects criteria comparable to those used by the search engine of the database site concerned for presenting results," then that would constitute re-utilisation of a database, the CJEU said.

Only if a database qualifies for protection would the operator of a meta search engine functioning in that manner be liable for database rights infringement.

The 'sui generis' database right only allows a creator to stop others using a database or the information in it if the investment of time, money and skill in that original database is large enough.

"This case is good for owners of data and databases as it confirms that competitors cannot simply apply their own search technology to another person’s data to get round intellectual property protection," intellectual property law expert Iain Connor of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said.

Copyright © 2014, Out-Law.com

Out-Law.com is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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