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A big win for open Internet: Сourt sides with an ad blocker in a copyright case

eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, has scored another victory in its long-running legal battle with German publisher Axel Springer. The Hamburg court rejected the publisher’s appeal, which claimed that ad blockers violate copyright by modifying the website’s HTML code to block ads.

If the court had sided with the publisher, it could have meant that any attempt to change the code of a website, such as by blocking ads or by changing the color scheme of the web page for accessibility purposes, could be considered a copyright violation and result in a cease and desist order from the website’s owner. For reference, HTML powers 95% of the Web.

In its blog post, eyeo notes that not only extension developers and browsers could have been affected and forced to pay damages, but also regular internet users, many of whom may not even remember installing certain extensions.

The hard-fought battle

The feud between Axel Springer and eyeo goes back nearly a decade. The appeal, tossed by the Hamburg court last month, was filed by the German media conglomerate in response to the ruling from January 2022, also in favor of Eeyo. That ruling was handed down to Axel Springer in the 2021 lawsuit, in which the publisher claimed for the first time that the HTML programming language should be protected under the German copyright law. The court disagreed, noting that ad blocking extension does not change the website’s code substantially enough, neither does it make a new copy of it, thus equating its use to changing browser settings. The court said that this is how a website is supposed to be used, and that you do not require permission from the website owner to make it look better to you.

Before bringing up copyright claims against eyeo, Axel Springer tried a different path, accusing the Cologne-based software developer of unfair competition. The publisher wanted not only to challenge Adblock Plus’s (admittedly questionable) practice of whitelisting certain advertisers, but also the concept of ad blocking as a whole. However, its efforts fell through, as Germany’s Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that ad blocking was legal. This was a major setback for the publisher, who then resorted to other legal actions against eyeo.

All in all, eyeo said that it had fended off 16 targeted lawsuits as of January 2022 — 17 if we count its recent victory against Axel. That is quite an impressive record, and we are grateful to eyeo for waging a holy war on our and many other extension developers’ and users’ behalf.

Broader implications and what’s next

Eyeo’s victory in the Hamburg court, though local, should not be underestimated. Had Axel Springer got its way, a dangerous precedent could have been set, paving the way for similar rulings in the EU and beyond. This would spell doom for the idea of the open Internet as a space where people can freely develop and use new extensions and browser features to enhance their online experience.

It would be naive to think that Axel Springer will throw in the towel. The publisher can still appeal to the Federal Court of Justice, so it’s too early to breathe a sigh of relief. The next legal challenge to ad blocking may be just around the corner, and the ad blocking community may soon need your support.

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