Act of communication to the public and liability of online platform operators: a return to the past


Clarification of the concept of communication to the public and a look back at the conditions of liability of online platform operators for unauthorised uploads of works by users of the service.

In a judgment handed down on 22 June 2021[1] in its most solemn formation, the Grand Chamber of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) continues its work on defining the notion of act of communication to the public. In so doing, it is addressing the thorny question of the conditions under which a platform operator may claim to be a host, or on the contrary must be classified as a publisher; the stakes are high because the liability regime differs. It therefore addresses issues related to the applicable law, as well as the margin of manoeuvre of States on a particular admissible mode of proof.

The Court links and deals with two cases (C-682/18 and C-683/18) brought before it by the German court for a preliminary ruling. The facts are similar; users of online platforms (one is a video platform, the other is a file hosting and sharing platform) upload works, which are protected by copyright, without prior authorisation from the right holders. The latter sued the operators of the platforms Youtube and Cyando, the carriers of the disputed upload.

The Bundesgerichtshof (The German Federal Court) submitted a series of questions to the Court, including the conditions under which a platform operator performs an act of communication to the public and the conditions under which it can claim to be a host.

It should be noted from the outset that the case is being examined under the previous law, applicable to the facts of the case, and not under the new law as it results from Directive 2019/790. The facts had in fact taken place in 2008 and 2013, whereas the above-mentioned regulation did not enter into force until 7 June 2019, i.e. afterwards. The decision is therefore based on Directives 2000/31[2], 2001/29[3], and 2004/48[4].

Concerning the notion of an act of communication to the public, an act which falls under the monopoly of the rights holder, the Court recalls that it covers two cumulative elements which are, on the one hand, an act of communication and, on the other hand, a communication to the public[5].

Additional criteria allow for an individual assessment of an act of communication, including

– The unavoidable role, i.e. when “in the absence of this intervention, customers would not, in principle, be able to enjoy the broadcast work[6];

– The deliberate role of the operator, i.e. “the fact of intervening in full knowledge of the consequences of his behaviour with the aim of giving the public access to protected works[7].

As a result, as a matter of principle, the operator does not carry out an act of communication to the public as a result of illicit uploads by users of its service, unless it goes beyond its role of simply making the platform available. This is particularly the case when[8]:

– The operator intervenes in the creation or selection of the uploaded content

– The operator proceeds to the viewing or control of the content before uploading

– The operator requires in its terms of use to respect copyright

– The operator does not deploy technical measures to combat illegal content in a credible and effective manner (notification button, content recognition and verification software).

– The operator promotes the sharing of illegal content on its platform or encourages uploading of illegal content to the platform

– The operator has a business model based on advertising revenues from viewed illegal content

As regards the possibility of benefiting from the conditional non-liability regime for hosts[9], the Court recalls the essential criterion of a neutral role: this is the case when the host limits itself to a “purely technical, automatic and passive role, implying the absence of knowledge or control of the content that it stores“. This is not the case when “the said operator plays an active role of such a nature as to confer knowledge or control of such content[10]“. This knowledge must be concrete, in the sense that a simple abstract knowledge by the operator of the use of its platform as a vehicle for the illicit posting of works online is insufficient to cause it to lose the benefit of the exemption from liability. It should be noted that the commission of an act of communication to the public by the operator deprives him of the possibility of being qualified as a host.

In order to prove the operator’s actual knowledge, and thus deprive him of the benefit of the exemption, the right holder may notify him of the presence of the disputed content. The operator is then obliged to exercise due diligence and remove the content promptly. The Court specifies that a Member State may make the obtaining of judicial injunctions conditional on the prior making of such a notification. The limitation is that the fulfilment of this condition does not result in the effective cessation of the infringement being delayed and does not cause disproportionate damage to the right holder[11].

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By Adrien Rouleau and the IP/IT team of UGGC Avocats

[1] Cases C-682/18 et C-683/18,
[2] Directive 2000/31 known as « electronic commerce »
[3] Directive 2001/29 known as « copyright in the information society»
[4] Directive 2004/48 on the enforcement of intellectual property rights
[5] Paragraph 66 of the judgment
[6] Paragraph 67 of the judgment
[7] Paragraph 68 of the judgment
[8] Paragraph 92 and following of the judgment
[9] Article 14, 1° of directive 2000/31
[10] Paragraph 106 of the judgment
[11] Paragraph 143 of the judgment