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German court says YouTube doesn’t have to share email and IP addresses of copyright-infringing users

By | Published on Tuesday 15 December 2020


A court in Germany has ruled that YouTube is not obliged to hand over to copyright owners the email addresses, IP addresses or phone numbers of users who have uploaded copyright-infringing content. There is an obligation to provide the physical mailing addresses of such users, but only if YouTube has them. Which it doesn’t, normally.

This ruling is the conclusion of a very long-running copyright dispute between the Google video site and movie firm Constantin Film, which ultimately found its way to the European Court Of Justice.

While most copyright owners simply issue takedowns against YouTube itself when users upload infringing content – often via the video site’s Content ID system – there is nothing to stop said copyright owners also seeking to sue the users directly for copyright infringement. Which is what Constantin Film considered doing after movies it controlled the German rights to were posted onto YouTube.

The challenge with that approach, though, is knowing who to sue. It’s generally agreed that courts in Europe have the power to tell YouTube to hand over contact information relating to infringing users, but the debate in the Constantin Film case was what information precisely? The relevant European Union directive just says “names and addresses”. But what kind of addresses?

Given that obligation comes from European law, once the Constantin v YouTube case reached Germany’s Federal Court Of Justice judges there bounced the matter up to the EU courts.

Earlier this year, the EU judges concluded that when European law talked about “names and addresses” it meant “addresses” in the standard and narrow sense of the word, so mailing address. In the absence of a mailing address, “addresses” couldn’t simply be reinterpreted to mean an email address or IP address.

Although, it should be added, what the EU judges said was that European law didn’t oblige member state courts to force YouTube to hand over email and IP addresses as well as mailing addresses. However, they added, nor did European law forbid member state courts from doing such a thing, but there was no obligation at an EU level so it was a matter for national law.

This meant that, once the case returned to Germany’s Federal Court Of Justice, judges could still demand YouTube provide Constantin Film with more information about the copyright infringing users. But, in a ruling last week, they declined to do so.

In its ruling, the court said that YouTube was not obliged to share email or IP address under either EU or German law. Whether that really matters to Constantin Film in the context of the movie uploads from 2013 and 2014 that kickstarted this case is debatable. Although, obviously, its the clarity the judgement provides regarding YouTube’s wider obligations that matters.