Ryanair, the Irish airline, has been involved in multiple cases concerning alleged 'screen scraping' of its site – the manner in which price-comparison websites automatically collect and compare flight cost data from various air carriers. Europe's highest court, the CJEU, has finally ruled on this issue. It considered whether a business can use its website terms to restrict others from using databases on its site in certain ways. Of particular relevance here was the fact that the databases in question were not protected by copyright or database rights. Despite this fact, Ryanair successfully argued that it can restrict screen-scrapers' use of the Ryanair site by way of the website terms.
PR Aviation runs a price-comparison website call 'Wegolo'. Its website automatically collects and uses data from Ryanair's website to compare the prices of budget airlines. This is known as 'screen scraping' and is used by a number of businesses as a core part of their business model.
Ryanair sued PR Aviation in the Dutch courts for breaches of its website terms and for infringing rights relating to its data set. In particular, Ryanair pointed to specific provisions in its terms that prohibit screen scraping unless it has allowed the third party to do so. The case was appealed to the Dutch Supreme Court, which referred a question to the CJEU.
What was the CJEU asked?
The EU Database Directive (the "Directive") provides two principal rights for the protection of databases: copyright and the database right. The Dutch courts had already decided that the Ryanair database did not qualify for either right. In addition to these rights, the Directive prohibits database owners from contractually restricting lawful third party users. The CJEU was asked whether this restriction also extended to a database falling within the Directive's definition, but which did not benefit from either of these rights.
What the CJEU said
The court highlighted that the Directive's definition for a database is particularly broad. It disagreed, however, with PR Aviation's argument that access to and use of a database could not be limited by contract. The CJEU pointed out that the definition of 'database' applies "for the purposes of this Directive", being "the legal protection of databases". As Ryanair's database did not qualify for either copyright or the database right, these additional limitations were not relevant.
The court said the Directive was aimed at achieving a balance between the rights of database owners and the rights of third party users. However, the limits that the Directive places on database owners are "irrelevant" to databases if they aren't protected by copyright or database rights.
What does the case means for others?
The case demonstrates that database owners can contractually restrict use and access by third parties to databases that are not protected under the Directive. This decision could have a significant impact on both database owners and operators of price-comparison (or other) websites utilising 'screen scraping'. Online database owners should now consider including clauses in their website terms and conditions that limit or prohibit screen scraping. Similarly, price-comparison sites should ensure that they comply with the terms of any sites from which they wish to gather pricing or other information.
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