AG Szpunar pleads for a cautious use of fundamental rights in copyright
With his Opinion in Funke Medien (C-469/17) Advocate General Szpunar opened the first (of at least three) rounds in which the Court of Justice of the European Union will test the boundaries of exclusive rights and copyright exceptions, and possibly also the limits of copyright in the EU (see also C-476/17 and C-516/17).
In proceedings before the German courts, the German Government seeks to prohibit the online publication of confidential military reports by invoking its copyright in the documents. The reports had been made available by the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper owned by Funke Medien. In the absence of an applicable exception in the EU copyright rules, the German courts asks whether Member States can exercise flexibility when implementing the exceptions under Article 5 of Directive 2001/29, and whether the fundamental rights of the Charter create exceptions to copyright beyond those expressly mentioned in the directive.
The Advocate General changes the perspective of the analysis and asks instead whether a restriction of the right to freedom of expression enjoyed by the newspaper can be justified by the government’s interest to protect its intellectual property in the reports. This is not the case when the reason for invoking copyright is to keep the information contained in the documents secret. It is, according to the Advocate General, not the purpose of copyright to protect the confidentiality of information. In such circumstances a limitation to freedom of expression cannot be justified on the grounds of intellectual property. Moreover, even if that were possible, a Member States could not, as a guarantor of fundamental rights, invoke the right to property against a private party.
Advocate General Szpunar cautions against a liberal application of fundamental rights in copyright cases outside of the legal provisions, which already reflect a balance between different interests and fundamental rights. Only in exceptional cases, for example when copyright is abused to achieve goals that are not covered by the purpose of copyright law, fundamental rights can serve as external checks to this property right. This line of argument is important, as it lends legitimacy to copyright rules, which should not be destabilized by challenges based on fundamental rights. Instead, the EU Charter should be used to interpret existing copyright rules. The Opinion can also be seen as an appeal to the legislator to review limitations and exceptions and to recalibrate, if necessary, the balance in copyright law.