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The European Court rules on the legal protection of databases

Can an otherwise unprotected database be protected through contract law? On 15 January 2015, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) held it can.

The CJEU handed down this important ruling in proceedings between Irish airline company Ryanair and PR Aviation, a Dutch company that operates a website on which consumers can search through the flight data of low-cost air companies, compare prices and, on payment of commission, book a flight. This website obtains the necessary data to respond to an individual query by automated means, inter alia, from a dataset linked to the Ryanair website.

In general, a database can be protected by copyright and sui generis database rights, provided the database satisfies the criteria for such protection. As the Amsterdam Court of Appeal held that Ryanair’s database did not meet these criteria, Ryanair could not rely on copyright or database rights.

However, the Court of Appeal also assumed that access to the Ryanair database presupposes that the visitor to the site accepts the application of Ryanair’s Terms of Use. Those conditions provide, amongst other, that Ryanair is the only one authorized to sell Ryanair flights and that use of the Ryanair website is permitted for private, non-commercial purposes only. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal denied Ryanair’s claim, in essence ruling that the EU Database Directive prevents Ryanair from restricting the use of its data through terms and conditions. On Ryanair’s appeal, the Supreme Court referred the case to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling.

In its preliminary ruling, the CJEU held that the Database Directive does not preclude the author of a database which is not protected either by copyright or by the sui generis right from laying down contractual limitations on its use by third parties, without prejudice to the applicable national law.

This ruling reaffirms the right of the author of an otherwise unprotected database to control the use third parties may make of this database. The ruling may have significant implications for the business model of those websites that, not only offer users the possibility to compare the prices of relevant goods or services, but also allow them to purchase such goods and services directly, without having to go to the website of the actual provider of goods and services.

Compliments of EAC New York Member Houthoff Buruma | Thijs van Aerde handled the case for Ryanair at the CJEU. Greetje van Heezik of Houthoff Buruma’s Brussels office was involved for procedural aspects.