Warning for Twitter Users in Japan Following Supreme Court Copyright Ruling

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Twitter users in Japan are facing uncertainty after the Supreme Court ruled that people who retweet copyright-infringing images can have their details passed to copyright holders. The case centered around the posting of an image that was posted to Twitter without permission and was then retweeted in an automatically cropped format.

Twitter PirateWith more than 330 million active users, Twitter is a true internet giant that gives anyone with an internet connection and an account to have their say on whatever they like.

Whether insightful, provocative, or even thoughtless, the overwhelming majority of tweets cause no legal issues. Every now and again, however, cases can attract the attention of lawyers who believe their clients’ rights have been breached.

Of course, copyright infringement is one of the most common issues and a case in Japan has put Twitter users on notice, not only concerning what they post to the platform but also what they can safely retweet to others.

The controversy began in 2014 when a photographer found that one of his images featuring a lily had been copied from his website and posted to Twitter without his permission. Additionally, he found that other users had retweeted the image from their own accounts. A Twitter feature meant that the retweeted images were cropped, removing the photographer’s name.

The photographer wanted to discover not only the identity of the original poster but also the retweeters so took the matter to court. The Tokyo District Court found that the original posting of the image infringed the photographer’s copyright but dismissed the claims against the retweeters.

Dissatisfied with the decision, the photographer took his case to the High Court handling intellectual property matters. That court agreed with the lower court that the original image posting had breached the photographer’s copyright. In respect of the retweeters, however, the High Court found they had violated the photographer’s moral rights, due to the Twitter cropping feature that removed his name, identifying him as the creator of the photograph.

As a result, the High Court ordered Twitter to hand over the email addresses not only of the original poster but also those of three other Twitter users who retweeted the image.

Twitter appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and essentially took responsibility for the cropping of the images, a feature that wasn’t under the control of its users. The company argued that any decision against them could have a chilling effect on its platform. The arguments fell on deaf ears.

In a decision handed down yesterday, the Supreme Court ordered Twitter to hand over the email addresses of the three retweeters after finding that the photographer’s rights were indeed infringed when Twitter’s cropping tool removed his identifying information.

Four out of five judges on the bench sided with the photographer, with Justice Hayashi dissenting. He argued that ruling in favor of the plaintiff would put Twitter users in the position of having to verify every piece of content was non-infringing before retweeting. The other judges said that despite these problems, the law must be upheld as it is for content published on other platforms.

“Twitter has 45 million users in Japan. It is hoped that the company will take action,” Presiding Justice Saburo Tokura said, as reported by Japan Times.

What the photographer will do with the emails addresses of the Twitter users is unclear but given the legal action undertaken thus far, it seems somewhat likely that similar could follow against the infringers.

Perhaps more importantly, around 45 million Twitter users in the country, most of whom won’t have heard about the case, will now be exposed to action, if they don’t take precautions over what they retweet. There is a possiblity that Twitter itself will find a solution but the company is yet to make an announcement.


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