eyeo wins landmark copyright court decision; protects digital rights and sets important legal precedent for who ‘owns’ HTML

eyeo wins landmark copyright court decision; protects digital rights and sets important legal precedent for who ‘owns’ HTML

Kathrin Jennewein, 18. January 2022

Hamburg, Germany — January 18, 2022 — eyeo, developer of best-in-class ad-filtering technology found in millions of browsers and products around the world, today announced that it has successfully defended and won a landmark court decision involving whether HTML can be subject to copyright enforcement.

Resolving this copyright case upholds the open standards mission of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and sets an important legal precedent and defines who ‘owns’ the code underlying websites and how popular browser features and utilities can continue to operate lawfully on the public Internet.

This most recent court action also marks the sixteenth time that eyeo has prevailed against targeted lawsuits, and successfully defended the legal rights of internet users, code developers, publishers, and other participants to a fair and sustainable internet ecosystem for everyone to enjoy.


Facts of the 2021 Hamburg copyright case:
The 2021 copyright lawsuit was brought against eyeo by Axel Springer, a large conglomerate based in Germany, and it sought to dictate that the HTML language used to render a website page should be protected under copyright law — effectively making it illegal for any technology or any consumer to alter a website page appearance. The copyright claim ignored the core principles and mission of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which is the international community that manages open web standards.

This 2021 copyright lawsuit filed in Hamburg was a new challenge to a 2018 Federal Court case, also brought against eyeo by Axel Springer, which was previously decided in favor of eyeo.

While the website HTML copyright protections sought by the plaintiff appear innocent on the surface, the technical ramifications are onerous and dangerous. In practice, most of the modern browser features that the Internet ecosystem enjoys today would have become instantly illegal, and copyright sanctions would have become enforceable: all privacy and anti-tracking technologies; all website language translation features; all accessibility utilities for blind and handicapped readers; all ad blockers; and all CSS modifications of any kind. The burden would have fallen upon code developers and ordinary users to seek explicit permission from a website publisher to grant an exception to run their browser features — before visiting each and every website.

Rightfully, the Hamburg court rejected the copyright argument from the plaintiffs and once again decided in favor of eyeo.


Legal precedent (why it matters):
Resolving this copyright case was an important legal precedent for defining once and for all who ‘owns’ Internet code and what rights the Internet community has to continue to develop new browser features and extensions that improve user experience.

In a worst case scenario, had the copyright claim been declared legal and enforceable, any ordinary computer user who uses (even unknowingly) browser extensions or features that modify HTML would be automatically deemed as infringing on copyright law and subjected to a cease and desist letter. More dangerous still, any developer who writes code for an offending browser feature could be liable to pay damages — retro-active to the past 3 years — for any lost revenues claimed by a website owner.

The final 2021 Hamburg court decision, as successfully defended by eyeo, establishes that there is a limit to copyright after which the website author can no longer assert any right of retention. This limit boundary exists between the code provision level and the code execution level.


About HTML open standards:
HTML is the standard markup language for anything meant to be displayed in a web browser. It was released to the world in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee as a free, open web standard for all to enjoy. Since 1996, the HTML specifications have been maintained by the international community of the W3C.


Expert comments:
“This legal argument simply went too far. HTML is a widely adopted open standard that underpins most websites, and shifting the burden of permission to users and developers is clearly unreasonable. We are pleased that the Court agrees, and we feel honored and privileged to be able to take up this legal fight on behalf of the interests of all Internet participants everywhere. This decision also preempts needless court battles elsewhere,” said Kai Recke, General Counsel for eyeo.

“People may not realize that many advertisers, publishers and ad-tech companies have partnered with us with a common goal of maintaining a fair and prosperous internet. But we have also defended and won sixteen legal decisions against those who want to corner the public Internet for their own private interests. We believe it is our duty as a ‘net citizen to fight these legal battles on behalf of the interests of all Internet participants everywhere,” said Till Faida founder CEO of eyeo.


About eyeo
eyeo is dedicated to empowering a balanced and sustainable online value exchange for users, browsers, advertisers and publishers. By building, monetizing, and distributing ad-filtering technologies, we create solutions that allow all members of the online ecosystem to prosper. Our ad-filtering technology powers some of the largest ad blockers on the market, like Adblock Plus, Adblock and Adblock Browser, and is distributed through partnerships to millions of devices. We are constantly innovating to meet the expectations of the changing online world, with privacy solutions such as Crumbs, our white label browsers for distribution partners, and the Acceptable Ads Standard, which reaches over 225 million users.