The European Court has ruled recently in the case C‑263/18 Nederlands Uitgeversverbond, Groep Algemene Uitgevers v Tom Kabinet Internet BV. This case concerns the following:
NUV and GAU, associations whose purpose it is to defend the interests of Netherlands publishers, were mandated by several publishers to ensure that the copyright granted to them by copyright holders by means of exclusive licences is protected and observed.
Tom Kabinet Holding is the sole shareholder of Tom Kabinet Uitgeverij, a publisher of books, e-books and databases, and also of Tom Kabinet. Tom Kabinet operates a website on which, on 24 June 2014, it launched an online service consisting in a virtual market for ‘second-hand’ e-books.
On 1 July 2014, NUV and GAU brought an action under the Law on copyright against Tom Kabinet, Tom Kabinet Holding and Tom Kabinet Uitgeverij before the urgent applications judge at theDistrict Court, Amsterdam, Netherlands in respect of that online service. The District Court, Amsterdam dismissed their application on the ground that, according to that court, there was no prima facie breach of copyright.
NUV and GAU appealed against that decision before the Court of Appeal, Amsterdam, Netherlands, which, by judgment of 20 January 2015, upheld the decision but prohibited Tom Kabinet from offering an online service that allowed the sale of unlawfully downloaded e-books. No appeal on a point of law was lodged against that judgment.
From 8 June 2015 onwards, Tom Kabinet modified the services offered up to that point and replaced them with the ‘Tom Leesclub’ (Tom reading club, ‘the reading club’), within which Tom Kabinet is an e-book trader. In return for payment of a sum of money, the reading club offers its members ‘second-hand’ e-books which have been either purchased by Tom Kabinet or donated to Tom Kabinet free of charge by members of the club. In the latter case, those members must provide the download link in respect of the book in question and declare that they have not kept a copy of the book. Tom Kabinet then uploads the e-book from the retailer’s website and places its own digital watermark on it, which serves as confirmation that it is a legally acquired copy.
Initially, e-books available through the reading club could be purchased for a fixed price of EUR 1.75 per e-book. Once payment had been made, the member could download the e-book from Tom Kabinet’s website and subsequently resell it to Tom Kabinet. Membership of the reading club was subject to payment by members of a monthly subscription of EUR 3.99. Any e-book provided free of charge by a member resulted in that member being entitled to a discount of EUR 0.99 on the following month’s subscription.
Since 18 November 2015, payment of a monthly subscription has ceased to be a requirement of membership of the reading club. On the one hand, the price of every e-book is now set at EUR 2. On the other hand, the members of the reading club also need ‘credits’ in order to be able to acquire an e-book through the reading club; credits can be obtained by providing the club with an e-book, either for consideration or free of charge. Such credits can also be purchased when making an order.
NUV and GAU applied to the District Court, The Hague, Netherlands for an injunction prohibiting Tom Kabinet on pain of a periodic penalty payment, from infringing the copyright of NUV’s and GAU’s affiliates by the making available or the reproduction of e-books. In particular, in their view Tom Kabinet is, in the context of the reading club, making an unauthorised communication of e-books to the public.
In an interim judgment of 12 July 2017, the referring court found that the e-books at issue were to be classified as works, within the meaning of Directive 2001/29, and that Tom Kabinet’s offer, in circumstances such as those at issue in the main proceedings, did not constitute a communication to the public of those works, within the meaning of Article 3(1) of that directive.
The referring court observes, however, that the answers to the questions as to whether the making available remotely by the downloading, for payment, of an e-book for use for an unlimited period may constitute an act of distribution for the purposes of Article 4(1) of Directive 2001/29, and as to whether the right of distribution may thus be exhausted, within the meaning of Article 4(2) of that directive, are unclear. It also wonders whether the copyright holder may, in the event of a resale, object, on the basis of Article 2 of that directive, to the acts of reproduction necessary for the lawful transmission between subsequent purchasers of the copy for which the distribution right is, if such be the case, exhausted. Nor is the answer to be given to that question apparent from the case-law of the Court of Justice, according to the referring court.
In those circumstances, the District Court, The Hague decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:
‘(1) Is Article 4(1) of [Directive 2001/29] to be interpreted as meaning that “any form of distribution to the public by sale or otherwise of the original of their works or copies thereof” as referred to therein includes the making available remotely by downloading, for use for an unlimited period, of e-books (being digital copies of books protected by copyright) at a price by means of which the copyright holder receives remuneration equivalent to the economic value of the work belonging to him?
(2) If question 1 is to be answered in the affirmative, is the distribution right with regard to the original or copies of a work as referred to in Article 4(2) of [Directive 2001/29] exhausted in the European Union, when the first sale or other transfer of that material, which includes the making available remotely by downloading, for use for an unlimited period, of e-books (being digital copies of books protected by copyright) at a price by means of which the copyright holder receives remuneration equivalent to the economic value of the work belonging to him, takes place in the European Union through the rightholder or with his consent?
(3) Is Article 2 of [Directive 2001/29] to be interpreted as meaning that a transfer between successive acquirers of a lawfully acquired copy in respect of which the distribution right has been exhausted constitutes consent to the acts of reproduction referred to therein, in so far as those acts of reproduction are necessary for the lawful use of that copy and, if so, which conditions apply?
(4) Is Article 5 of [Directive 2001/29] to be interpreted as meaning that the copyright holder may no longer oppose the acts of reproduction necessary for a transfer between successive acquirers of the lawfully acquired copy in respect of which the distribution right has been exhausted and, if so, which conditions apply?’
The Court’s decision:
The supply to the public by downloading, for permanent use, of an e-book is covered by the concept of ‘communication to the public’ and, more specifically, by that of ‘making available to the public of [authors’] works in such a way that members of the public may access them from a place and at a time individually chosen by them’, within the meaning of Article 3(1) 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.