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Dutch Court Rules That Hyperlinks Are Legal

by Ulrika Lomas, for, Brussels

11 September 2003

The Dutch Court of Appeal in the Hague last week ruled that hyperlinks to copyrighted material are legal, marking a defeat for the Church of Scientology in its battle against Dutch writer, Karin Spaink, her internet service provider, XS4ALL, and ten other ISPs.

The dispute began eight years ago with online coverage of a lawsuit in which former Scientology devotee, Steven Fishman, was sued by the group over unpaid fees for courses that he had taken. As part of his defence, Mr Fishman produced several documents created by the group, which became part of public record, and are thus protected under freedom of speech laws in the Netherlands.

In 1995, the Church of Scientology took issue with the fact that one of XS4ALL's subscribers had provided links to the aforementioned material, and according to the ISP, arrived at its offices with legal representation, seeking to confiscate its servers. On hearing of the dispute, Ms Spaink posted links to the same material on her website, which prompted the church to file a copyright lawsuit against her.

Although two earlier lawsuits dismissed the Scientologists' claims with regard to the illegality of hyperlinks to copyrighted material, the second lawsuit resulted in the ruling that ISPs should be held accountable for the activities of their subscribers, and that if a provider is made aware that illegal materials, or hyperlinks to copyrighted content have been posted, it should remove the links and/or the website.

Last week's ruling in the Court of Appeal overturned both of those decisions, a move which has delighted both XS4ALL and Ms Spaink. In a statement, the ISP announced that:

'XS4ALL is naturally very pleased with the outcome,' adding that: 'After all, a hyperlink is merely a road marker on the internet, and according to XS4ALL, it can therefore never be unlawful.'

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