24/04/2013 10:12 BST | Updated 23/06/2013 06:12 BST

Supreme Court Drags Internet Law Into the 21st Century


Something rather fundamental happened last week in Parliament Square. Not Lady Thatcher leaving Parliament and beginning her final journey to St Paul's - momentous event though that was. It took place on the opposite side of the Square, in the Supreme Court.

Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court handed down its judgement on the boundaries of copyright on the internet. It did so by ruling on a case brought by the PRCA on behalf of the PR industry, against the Newspaper Licensing Agency on behalf of the newspaper industry.

Over the past four years, our two bodies have clashed in the Copyright Tribunal, the High Court, and the Court of Appeal. We have done so as we contested where copyright lay - in essence, whether URLs were copyrightable; whether the simple act of viewing a newspaper article on a computer screen infringed copyright.

The arguments we have deployed, and the judgements that have been reached along the way, are necessarily complex and open to different interpretations. But last week's Supreme Court ruling was clear. It concluded that you infringe no law when you go to a website and view content made freely available by the newspapers.

The NLA had argued that because computers make a temporary copy of webpages as part of the process of downloading them, users could be required to obtain a licence. The Supreme Court agreed with us, ruling that the copies created fell within the exemptions set out in the European Directive 2001/29/EC.

Because of the importance of its ruling, the Supreme Court also referred the case to Europe.

Why is this case important? The Supreme Court summed it up nicely when it said that if the NLA's position were to stand it would potentially affect "millions of non-commercial users of the internet who may, no doubt unwillingly, be incurring civil liability by viewing copyright material on the internet". Such a situation would, it said, be "unacceptable".

Now the case moves to Europe, to clarify the situation across all member states. To give the casual newspaper reader and internet browser legal certainty.

The law always needs to keep pace with the realities of life - but ours had been dangerously unsuited to the internet world. Last week's judgement dragged our copyright laws into the 21st century. That's good news for all of us - including newspapers.

Like I said - last Wednesday really was quite a fundamental day.