Looking at an article on a newspaper website involves making a copy of it. Most sites allow the making of that copy for non-commercial use but that may not include subscribers to the Meltwater News clippings service.
Users do make copies and, without a licence, this is an infringement of newspaper publishers' copyrights, the Court of Appeal said. It upheld a High Court ruling that clients of Meltwater, which are usually PR firms, must have a licence in addition to that held by Meltwater.
"This ruling means that millions of professionals will unwittingly infringe copyright legislation on a daily basis by simply browsing the web," said a Meltwater statement after the ruling, which also said that it was a "set-back for the rights of Internet users".
Meltwater technology scans newspaper websites for words that clients ask to be notified of so that they can track the news on certain subjects. It sells its services largely to PR firms who monitor news coverage related to issues or clients' businesses.
Newspaper groups and trade body the Newspaper Licensing Association (NLA) said that the company and its customers needed separate licences to gather and use the material from newspaper websites.
Meltwater and PR trade body the Public Relations Consultants' Association (PRCA) claimed that Meltwater did not need a licence to trawl the websites and that Meltwater customers did not need a separate licence to use the results of that trawling by looking at emails and following links to look at newspaper website pages.
Meltwater eventually bought a licence to do its trawling but the case continued and the Court of Appeal has said that the High Court was right to say that licences in a commercial setting were needed.
The Court found that the material on newspaper websites was protected by copyright and that the arguments made by Meltwater and the PRCA that exceptions to copyright law applied did not stand up.
The ruling upheld as "unassailable" the High Court's view that headlines can be literary works independent of the articles, and therefore worthy of copyright protection, and said that the cases where articles or headlines are not copyright-protected would be few in number.
The PRCA, though, said that the ruling upholds its view that headlines have not been found by courts to be protected by copyright in their own right.
The Copyright Tribunal will examine the NLA licences for fairness, the Meltwater statement said, and the company and the PRCA will appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court, it said.