Database Protection: Contracts or Intellectual Property Rights?
In the case of Ryanair Ltd v PR Aviation BV (Case C‑30/14), the Court of Justice of the European Union ("CJEU") ruled that website operators can restrict other businesses from taking information from their websites but only if that information cannot be protected by copyright or sui generis rights pursuant to Directive 96/9 (the "Database Directive").
PR Aviation, a Netherlands-based price comparison company, operated an IT automated system to take information on flights which allowed consumers to search through the flight data of low-cost air companies, such as Ryanair. Access to Ryanair's website requires a visitor to the site to accept its general terms and conditions by ticking a box. The terms and conditions on Ryanair's website state the information contained on its site can be used only for private and non-commercial purposes and the use of automated systems or screen scraping is prohibited unless the third party has entered into a licence agreement with Ryanair.
Ryanair sued PR Aviation in the Netherlands, claiming it had acted in breach of the airline's website's terms and conditions by sharing the information. It also sued PR Aviation for infringing its copyright and sui generis rights covering the data on its site, but after the case was dismissed by in the Court of Appeal in Amsterdam, Ryanair appealed to the Dutch Supreme Court, which referred the matter to the CJEU.
The CJEU decided that, if Ryanair's database is not protected under the terms of the Database Directive, either by copyright or by the sui generis right (which it was not), the provisions of the Directive are not applicable to it. Therefore, the author of such a database is not precluded from laying down contractual limitations on its use by third parties. The case will now return to the Dutch Supreme Court to make a decision about the merits of the case.
The decision has led somewhat to the uncertainty regarding the protection of databases across Europe and could potentially affect a number of price comparison and aggregator websites. However, there are a few lessons which can be learnt from the case.
Businesses operating a website database should ensure incorporation of clauses in their website's terms and conditions that expressly prohibit screen scraping. If the terms and conditions are brought to the user's attention (i.e. by clicking to accept the terms and conditions), this is likely to provide the website owner with protection if the Database Directive does not apply. Businesses that carry out such screen scraping activities should also be aware of this decision and the potential ramifications that it may have for aggregator and comparison site business models.