Belgian court rules ISPs don't have to pay copyright levies

The court found that ISPs are not liable for the content transmitted over their networks

A Brussels court has ruled that Belgian ISPs don't have to pay copyright levies for offering access to copyright protected materials online.

The Belgian association of authors, composers and publishers, Sabam, sued the country's three biggest ISPs -- Belgacom, Telenet and Voo -- in early 2013, demanding they pay 3.4 percent of their revenue in copyright fees.

Sabam argued the ISPs profit from offering high speed Internet connections that give users easy access to copyright protected materials, so they should compensate authors, composers and publishers for movies and music downloaded illegally. Sabam started demanding compensation from ISPs in 2011.

The Brussels court of the first instance disagreed, Sabam said in a news release on Tuesday. In its decision from last Friday, the court found that Internet access providers are not liable for information transmitted over their networks, Sabam said.

The court did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The decision is in line with the European Union's e-commerce directive, which states that EU countries have to ensure that service providers are not liable for the information they transmit, as long as the provider does not initiate or modify the information in the transmission.

This EU regulation was why the Belgian government sued Sabam in late 2013 ((in an effort)) to stop the lawsuit against the ISPs.

Friday's judgement was welcomed by Belgacom. "It is as we expected," said a spokeswoman, reiterating that Belgacom just offers Internet access and is not responsible for the content.

Telenet and Voo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Sabam said it sees opportunities to appeal the case. The decision by the Brussels court directly opposes four decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), a Sabam spokesman said in an email.

In those four cases, the CJEU ruled that the economic advantage someone gets from relaying works is often the decisive factor to determine whether someone is responsible for the communication, he said.

However, the Brussels court found the question of whether ISPs benefit from giving access to material irrelevant, Sabam said in its news release, adding that the court also chose to ignore the business model ISPs have built around the distribution of works on the Internet, which is very profitable for them.

Sabam hasn't yet decided if it will appeal.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, online payment issues as well as EU technology policy and regulation for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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