Private copying levies, copyrights, clouds and Advocate General’s opinion

The Advocate Genaral of the European Court G.Hogan has issued his opinion on the case C‑433/20 Austro-Mechana Gesellschaft zur Wahrnehmung mechanisch-musikalischer Urheberrechte Gesellschaft mbH v Strato AG.

In a nutshell the case concerns the question whether private copying in a cloud environment requires separate copying levy. The dispute has the following background:

Austro-Mechana is a copyright collecting society which protects, in a fiduciary capacity, the rights of use and the rights to remuneration in respect of works of music (with and without lyrics) in its own name but in the interest of and on behalf of the beneficiaries of those rights. The interests protected by collecting societies such as Austro-Mechana include, in particular, the statutory rights to remuneration provided for in Paragraph 42b(1) of the UrhG, that is, the right to remuneration in respect of the exploitation of the right of reproduction on storage media.

Austro-Mechana brought an action before the Commercial Court, Vienna, Austria against Strato, a company established in Germany, which provides a service under the name ‘HiDrive’. The service in question is described by its supplier as a ‘virtual cloud storage solution which is as quick and simple to use as an (external) hard disk’. Strato claims that its storage solution ‘offers enough space to store photos, music and films in one central location’.

Austro-Mechana sought an order allowing it to invoice for, and subsequently take payment in settlement of, the remuneration owed by Strato under Paragraph 42b(1) of the UrhG for exploitation of the right of reproduction on storage media. It contends that given that the form of words used in Paragraph 42b(1) of the UrhG is itself deliberately framed in general terms, remuneration for exploitation of the right of reproduction on storage media is payable even in the case where storage media of any kind are, in the course of a commercial activity, ‘placed on the market’ – by whatever means and in whatever form – within national territory, including in situations involving the provision of cloud-based storage space. It says that the descriptive words ‘place on the market’ do not refer to physical distribution but deliberately leave scope for the inclusion of all processes that have the effect of making storage space available to users in national territory for the purposes of reproduction for (personal or) private use. In addition, Paragraph 42b(3) of the UrhG makes it clear that it is immaterial whether the storage media placed on the market originate in national territory or in other countries.

Strato contested the application. It claimed that the applicable version of the UrhG does not provide for remuneration for cloud services and that the legislature, being cognisant of the technical possibilities available, made a deliberate choice not to take up that option. According to Strato, cloud services and physical storage media are not comparable. An interpretation that includes cloud services is not possible as storage media is not placed on the market; storage space is simply made available. Strato claimed that it does not sell or lease physical storage media to Austria but merely offers online storage space on its servers hosted in Germany. Strato also stated that it has already indirectly paid the copyright fee for its servers in Germany (as a component of the price charged by the manufacturer/importer). In addition, Austrian users had already paid a copyright fee for the devices without which content cannot even be uploaded to the cloud in the first place. The imposition of an additional charge by way of remuneration for exploitation of the right of reproduction on storage media, for cloud storage, would, according to Strato, have the effect of doubling or even tripling the obligation to pay a fee.

The Commercial Court, Vienna dismissed the action. It held essentially, that holders of copyright and related rights (‘rightholders’) are entitled to equitable remuneration in the case where storage media (from a location in national territory or another country) are, in the course of a commercial activity, placed on the market in the national territory, if an object requiring protection is by its nature likely to be reproduced for personal or private use by being recorded on a storage medium (in a manner permitted in accordance with Paragraph 42(2) to (7) of the UrhG), that is to say, in relation to storage media of any kind that are suitable for making such reproductions.

The Commercial Court, Vienna stated that Paragraph 42b(1) of the UrhG, which expressly refers to ‘storage media of any kind’, includes – internal and external – computer hard disks. It also stated that cloud services exist in the most diverse forms. The core of any such service is the assurance that the user has a certain storage capacity, but this does not include the right for the user to have his or her content stored on a particular server or on particular servers, his or her entitlement being limited to being able to access his or her storage capacity ‘somewhere in the [supplier’s] cloud’. According to that court, Strato does not therefore provide its customers with storage media but makes storage capacity available – as a service – online. It noted that in the course of the procedure for peer review of the draft of the Urh-Nov, (8) an express call was made for account to be taken of cloud storage and proposed forms of words were put forward for that purpose. However, the legislature deliberately chose not to include such a provision.

Austro-Mechana appealed against that judgment before the referring court. The referring court considers that the question whether Article 5(2)(b) of Directive 2001/29 covers the storage of copyright-protected content in the cloud is not entirely clear. In that regard, the referring court notes that in the judgment of 29 November 2017, VCAST (C‑265/16, EU:C:2017:913; ‘the VCAST judgment), the Court stated that the storage of protected content in a cloud is to be treated as an exploitation of rights in which the author alone may engage.

In the light of the above considerations, the Higher Regional Court, Vienna decided to stay the proceedings and refer the following questions to the Court for a preliminary ruling:

‘(1) Is the expression “on any medium” in Article 5(2)(b) of Directive [2001/29] to be interpreted as meaning that it also includes servers owned by third parties which make available to natural persons (customers) for private use (and for ends that are neither directly nor indirectly commercial) storage space on … those servers which those customers use for reproduction by storage (“cloud computing”)?

(2) If so: is the provision cited in Question 1 to be interpreted as meaning that it is applicable to national legislation under which the author is entitled to equitable remuneration (remuneration for exploitation of the right of reproduction on storage media), in the case:

–  where a work (which has been broadcast, made available to the public or recorded on a storage medium produced for commercial purposes) is by its nature likely to be reproduced for personal or private use by being stored “on a storage medium of any kind which is suitable for such reproduction and, in the course of a commercial activity, is placed on the market in national territory”,

–  and where the storage method used in that context is that described in Question 1?’

The Advocate’s opinion:

The terms ‘reproductions on any medium’ in Article 5(2)(b) of Directive 2001/29/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 May 2001 on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society includes reproduction based on cloud computing services provided by a third party.

A separate levy or fee is not payable in respect of the reproduction by a natural person for their own personal purposes based on cloud computing services provided by a third party provided that the levies paid in respect of devices/media in the Member State in question also reflects the harm caused to the rightholder by such reproduction. If a Member State has, in fact, elected to provide for a levy system in respect of devices/media, the referring court is in principle entitled to assume that this in itself constitutes ‘fair compensation’ in the sense of Article 5(2)(b) of Directive 2001/29, unless the rightholder (or their representative) can clearly demonstrate that such payment would in the circumstances of the case at hand be inadequate.