19 March, 2014

Retrospective - Thumbnails and Inline Linking

The Internet has been the vocal point for most important developments regarding copyright since its emergence. Many cases have dealt with all manner of issues, such as ISP liability and over electronic scans of books, and there seems to be no end in sight as the law tries to adapt and mold itself to the electronic sphere. A staple feature of the world wide web is thumbnailing, where a smaller image is given to represent the real picture, often used in both search results and web pages when linking to said pictures, to make their identification and finding easier. The legality of this practice can be questioned, especially since it does, prima facie, create a copy of a work when it might not be sanctioned. However the determination of the aforementioned legal conundrum happened in the early years of the 21st century in the US Court of Appeals.

The case in question is Kelly v Arriba Soft Corporation, decided in 2002 initially, with an amended final decision being published in 2003. This concerned professional photographer Leslie Kelly, who posted some of his work on his website or others which duly licensed Mr. Kelly's works. The defendant, Arriba Soft, were the operators of an internet search engine called Ditto (which has since gone bankrupt), which displayed smaller versions of images as a part of their given search results as opposed to merely a text link to the image. Through this they amassed a database of pictures by copying the images from other websites such as Mr. Kelly's website or others which contained his works. Once Mr. Kelly found out that Arriba Soft had copied his works onto their database, he subsequently sued the corporation for copyright infringement. 

A very different thumbnail
In their judgment the Court of Appeals had to assess whether Arriba Soft's use of the images would fall under US fair use in section 107, as the reproduction of copyright protected images is only available to those who own the copyright or use the works under fair use. In their judgment the Court saw that the use of the works was both commercial and transformative, although regarding the former the use's nature was more incidental than purely for commercial gain, as Arriba Soft did not directly benefit from the displaying or selling of the images. Due to the smaller size and lower resolution of the images, their use of said images was clearly transformative from the more aesthetic nature of Mr. Kelly's work when displayed in full. As Justice Nelson stated: "The Copyright Act was intended to promote creativity, thereby benefitting the artist and the public alike... Arriba's use of Kelly's images promotes the goals... The thumbnails do not stifle artistic creativity because they are not used for illustrative or artistic purposes and therefore do not supplant the need for the originals. In addition, they benefit the public by enhancing information-gathering techniques on the internet"

The nature of Arriba's use of Mr. Kelly's work was very different to their intended use, being more as aesthetically pleasing works of art as said above, which the thumbnails clearly were not. Even though Arriba Soft had copied the entire image into their database the Court saw that this was reasonable for their use and would not be substantially enough to merit infringement. Finally, the Court saw that Arriba Soft's use of the images did not harm Mr. Kelly's intended market, as clearly one can say that the arts market would be wholly different from that of search engines. In addition Justice Nelson stated well that: "By showing the thumbnails on its results page when users entered terms related to Kelly's images, the search engine would guide users to Kelly's web site rather than away from it". Clearly the thumbnails would only increase the potential market share of Mr. Kelly's work, directing traffic to his website all the while giving search engine users a preview of works quickly and potentially increasing their interest. As such the Court decided that Arriba Soft's use fell under fair use.

Thumbnails can be said to be very essential to modern uses of search engines, and create a great avenue from which both parties can benefit. Without them finding images would be exponentially harder. This is clearly demonstrated by the quick modification of the Court of Appeal's initial decision, which would have impeded such functions through its decision that displaying full-sized images would infringe copyright. Search engines are a complex beast, and will continually evolve, challenging the legislature and judiciary to adapt and potentially protect the free operation of the Internet and discovery of its content. 

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