UK: EU Court Rules That Meta Search Engine Infringes Database Right

Last Updated: 16 February 2014
Article by Belinda Doshi and Robyn Chatwood

Summary and implications

On 19 December 2013, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) gave an important ruling on database rights and meta search engines. The ruling will have far reaching implications for owners and commercial users of online databases.

In Case C 202/12, Innoweb BV v Wegener ICT Media BV, Wegener Mediaventions BV (the Innoweb Case), questions of interpretation of the EU Directive 96/9/EC on the legal protection of databases (the Database Directive) had been referred to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling. The CJEU decided that a meta search engine – which presented search results on its own website that were derived from searches of third-party databases – would reutilise all or a substantial part of the third-party databases. If this was done without the database owners' consent, the owners' database right under the Database Directive would be breached. The case is now back to the Appeal Court of The Hague in the Netherlands (the Court) for a final decision.

This CJEU landmark ruling will be welcomed by organisations that have invested in their own databases. However, meta search engine operators will be greatly concerned – and should review their practices in light of the preliminary judgment.

What is a database right?

In the EU, database right exists independently of and in addition to copyright (if any) in a database. The Database Directive provides that database right subsists in databases where there has been "a substantial investment in obtaining, verifying or presenting the contents of the database". The Database Directive protects database owners against misappropriation of their investment in the database by providing a right to prevent unauthorised extraction or reutilisation.

What is a meta search engine?

A meta search engine is a search tool that enables a user to search several search engines or databases in a single search. Search results are then aggregated into a single list. Meta search engines index other search engines and give a user more comprehensive results in one list. This allows the user to avoid using multiple search engines separately.

The background to the Innoweb Case

In the Innoweb case, the Dutch company, Wegener, operated a website (AutoTrack) that provided car advertisements. A Dutch competitor, Innoweb, operated its own car sales website, GasPedaal. GasPedaal provided users with a meta search engine which searched search engines of other car sales websites, including AutoTrack (the CJEU described the process as "translating" user queries). Users searching on GasPedaal would see in search results a small part of the contents of the databases provided by other websites. About 100,000 searches of AutoTrack's website were done each day by GasPedaal users.

AutoTrack sought to protect its database right and initially won an injunction against GasPedaal. GasPedaal appealed to the Court. There, the Court found GasPedaal had extracted neither the whole nor a substantial part of AutoTrack's database nor had repeatedly extracted an insubstantial part of it. On that basis, GasPedaal did not infringe AutoTrack's database right. However, the Court stayed proceedings so it could refer several questions on interpretation of the Database Directive to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling.

The CJEU preliminary ruling

In considering the application of the Database Directive to GasPedaal's meta search engine activities, the CJEU took into account the public policy objective of the Database Directive. This was to stimulate development of an information market by ensuring that those who make a substantial investment to set up and operate a database receive a return on the investment – through protecting it from unauthorised use.

The CJEU found unlawful reutilisation of all or a substantial part of a database under Article 7 of the Database Directive occurs where a meta search engine:

  • provides users with a search capacity which, in essence, offers the same functionality as provided on another's site;
  • translates user search queries into the other search engines in real time so that all of the third party's database information was searched; and
  • presents users with search results in an order which reflected criteria comparable to those used by the third-party database owner for presenting its results.

In arriving at its preliminary ruling, the CJEU appeared to be influenced by the particular facts of the case – that GasPedaal's meta search engine enabled searches of AutoTrack's database in "real time" and GasPedaal's users had no need to consult AutoTrack's database separately, or visit AutoTrack's website. Thus, there was a risk that AutoTrack would lose website advertising income and so revenue from its database. The CJEU compared a meta search engine to a "parasitical competing product" which resembled the database without actually containing its data.

Of greater concern however is the CJEU's general statement that unlawful "re-utilisation" is to be construed to include any act of making available a database to the public without consent irrespective of the "nature and form" of the process used.


In conclusion, meta search engine operators should review their use of others' databases.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Belinda Doshi
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