Sat, Aug. 06, 2005

Sweat of the Brow: HTML

CK - Washington.   Converting a client's ads from a text processor file to an HTML file, without more, is sweat of the brow-type work, not a copyrightable work under German copyright law, the Frankfurt Court of Appeals decided in the matter 11U64/04 on March 22, 2005.

On August 4, 2005, Niko Härting made the decision available and added a comment. In particular, he notes that this decision follows a trend among German courts that fail to protect web designs based on works created in other formats, for lack of creativity.

In this matter, the court explored copyright protection and liability under unfair competition law in the context of a web site that advertises employment opportunities for its clients. A competitor had scraped its content after receiving an identical assignment from one of its clients. The client had provided the content for the ads.

The parties argued whether HTML constitutes a programming language that is encompassed by the software protection rules of the copyright act. They also disagreed over the issue of protection afforded the advertisements under the database protection law, in §§87 et seq. of the Copyright Act.

The court confirmed that the creation of a web site based on other content is capable of general copyright protection if its digital production displays the required amount of creativity as per § 2(2) of the copyright statute. The ads at issue represent a technical production process, not a creative one, the court held.

The court ventured further, in order to determine whether special rules protecting software programs might apply. After discussing the view of some courts that HTML code constitutes a software program, the Frankfurt court found HTML to represent a mere communications tool, even as some information is being coded for a web site. It finds the content to represent the creative element, not the code that makes the site happen.

The technical underpinnings of this argument seems implausible: Various technical solutions can create the same content representation on a web site. Clearly, the same is true for software programs in general: We can program in Delphi or Basic, C or Symbian the same perceptible result; nobody would claim that works created in these programming languages would not constitute programs just because the perceived result is identical.

On the unfair competition claim, the court found that the parties created web representations of their clients' work where the web design firms' work was insignificant and not worthy of independent protection. Customers would not be misled, and quality standards are not characteristic for the scraped site. The plaintiff had not presented the court with evidence of special structure, logic, content or graphical representations that went beyond the ordinary. These factors may sway this court in future cases.

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