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French websites liable for story in RSS reader

A French court has punished web publishers because of snippets of text that appeared on their sites via an RSS reader. It is believed to be the first time that a website operator has been held responsible for content delivered by a third party's RSS feed.18 Apr 2008

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a common way for publishers to make their content available to others. Individuals use RSS readers to see the latest content from their favourite sites without needing to visit each site. Websites can also display the RSS output of other sites.

A French court, the Tribunal De Grande Instance De Nanterre, has said that three websites, Planete Soft, Aadsoft and Lespipoles, are liable for invasion of privacy because of articles published by other people but available via RSS from their sites.

The articles concerned the director of Oscar winning La Vie En Rose and actress Sharon Stone and were taken via RSS from publisher Gala.fr. Dahan's lawyer Emmanuel Asmar told OUT-LAW Radio that as well as a successful suit against Gala, they also won cases against the three RSS feed publishers.

"[The RSS] link provides the link plus a short summary of some content," said Asmar. "We won the judgment. We won first on the original author of the information and secondly on the link. They were sentenced because they published the link."

"The RSS feeds in question took in effect the essential features of the article at gala.fr, i.e. the rumour of the relationship between the pursuer and the American actress Sharon Stone," said the judgment, according to a translation by OUT-LAW.COM.

"The defender has, in signing up to the order and organising them according to their themes, acted as an editor and must therefore assume responsibility for the information which is displayed on his own site."

"In this particular case the RSS reader displayed information not only made up of a simple link but both the title and the snippet of the information appeared: 'Sharon Stone and Olivier Dahan, the star has a romantic embrace with the director'. This was sufficient to constitute an attack on his private life," it said.

The publishers of the RSS feed were ordered to pay between €500 and €800 plus €1,000 in costs for their liability in breaching France's strict privacy laws.

The principle of liability for RSS-fed material, though, could apply in France to any other law-breaking material, such as defamatory articles.

Asmar is the lawyer who won another recent groundbreaking case when he represented Kylie Minogue's ex boyfriend Olivier Martinez in another privacy case. In that case two bloggers and a website publisher were held liable for privacy invasion because they published simple links to stories which were found to invade the actor's privacy.

Media law expert Kim Walker of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that there has not been a test case in the UK on link liability.

A Court of Appeal ruling from 1894 could influence courts, though. It found that a man who stood by a roadside placard drawing the attention of passers by to it was liable for its defamatory content, even though he did not create or erect the placard.

"I think it's a very good analogy. English common law is based on precedents and that is clearly a precedent so it is the sort of case that would be brought up and argued," said Walker.

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