Parody and the protection of fundamental rights under EU law: No laughing matter? (C-201/13)

In his Opinion of 22 May 2014 in case C-201/13 Deckmyn and Vrijheidsfonds (once again, not available in English), AG Cruz Villalon has assessed the concept of 'parody' under Art 5(3)(k) of Directive 2001/29/CE on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society (Copyright Directive). 

The Opinion is interesting because it concerns the degree to which fundamental rights' protection needs to be taken into consideration (as a matter of EU law) when making the relevant determination of the extension of the 'parodic' exception to copyright in a civil procedure. 

This is one of the myriad of cases in which the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) will soon be concerned with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and, consequently, the proposals on the integration/coordination of these issues that the AG puts forward may be interesting beyond the scope of application of the Copyright Directive.

In the case at hand, a political party used a parody of a comic to criticise the then mayor of Ghent (Belgium). In the parodied copy, the name of the original author (Vandersteen) was included, with a reference that indicated that the current version was a "free adaptation" of the original work made by a second author (Fre) -- both designs are reproduced below, as they appear on AG Cruz Villalon's Opinion (original on the right).


The controversy basically derived from the fact that the parody had a discriminatory or racist content and, consequently, the heirs of the original author and the companies that currently hold the rights to the exploitation of his works tried to prevent such a use of Vandersteen's comic. The claim was technically framed as a challenge to the proper use of the materials as a parody, given that it was not the original work that was being parodied, but Ghent's mayor of the time. According to the claimants, that use would not be covered by the exception under Art 5(3)(k) of Directive 2001/29/CE.

AG Cruz Villalon, anticipating potential criticisms to his Opinion on the interpretation of the concept of parody, establishes important limitations to the scope of his arguments, where he makes clear that they do not include any elements regarding the moral rights of the author, the "three-step" test that Art 5(5) of the Copyright Directive establishes as a balancing requirement between the exceptions therein regulated and the protected rights, or the caveat that Belgian law introduced to the fact that parody is only acceptable provided it is conducted "in observance of good manners".

After confirming that, in his view, the concept of 'parody' (for the purposes of the Copyright Directive) is an autonomous concept of EU Law (paras 32-39), the AG goes on to consider that "Parody is [...] structurally, 'imitation' and, functionally, 'burlesque'" (or mocking, para 48, own translation from Spanish), and provides a significant amount of details as to his interpretation of both these structural (paras 49-58) and functional (paras 59-70) requirements. In my view, the most interesting part of his Opinion concerns paras 71-88, where he engages in a discussion on the incidence of the protection of fundamental rights on the (acceptable) content of the parody. The difficult question to be answered is, basically, "To what extent can the interpretation of the scope of the exception for parody given by the civil judge be determined by the protection of fundamental rights?" (para 76, own translation from Spanish).

The AG approaches the issue both as a matter of principle and introducing an exception. As a matter of principle, the AG submits that "always under the assumption that parody effectively meets the requirements already mentioned, an interpretation of the notion of parody by the civil court should, as a matter of principle, favor the exercise of freedom of expression through this unique medium" (para 81, own translation from Spanish). However, given that freedom of expression is never unlimited, 
Considering the "presence" to be recognized to fundamental rights in the legal system as a whole, I understand that, in principle and from the narrow perspective of the concept of parody, a certain image cannot be excluded from this notion for the simple fact that the message is not shared by the author of the original work, or by the rejection that it may deserve from much of the public. Still, those deformations of the original work that, in the form or substance, convey a message radically contrary to the deepest convictions of society, and in which the European public space is ultimately built, and ultimately exists, should not be accepted as a parody, and the authors of the parodied work are entitled to enforce that restriction as well (para 85, own translation from Spanish, emphasis added).
Nonetheless, the final test proposed by the AG is rather mild and, in my view, is unnecessarily inconclusive, as he proposes the CJEU to find that "When interpreting the term 'parody', the civil court must be guided by the fundamental rights proclaimed in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and proceed to the necessary balancing between those rights when the circumstances of the case at hand require".

I consider that the (self)restraint that AG Cruz Villalon shows in the final part of his Opinion in Deckmyn and Vrijheidsfonds is a clear indicator of the pusillanimous approach that we can expect the CJEU to adopt in cases like this one. Given that the concept of parody is a concept of EU law (for the purposed of the Copyright Directive, anyway) and that the CJEU holds the ultimate competence for the interpretation of the EU Charter [as coordinated with the European Convention on Human Rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights per art 52(3) EUCFR] the AG could have been more aggressive.

In my view, the AG should have clearly proposed that the CJEU interpreted that the concept of parody does not include 'those deformations of the original work that, in the form or substance, convey a message radically contrary to the deepest convictions of society' and, in particular, those that are racist, xenophobic or, in any other way, attempt against cultural, religious and linguistic diversity as protected in Article 22 of the EU Charter. Such a finding would still require the domestic courts of the Member States to determine whether, on the basis of the facts and circumstances of a given case, the intended parody is or not covered by the EU concept. However, the message would be much stronger and the CJEU would be effectively acting as a constitutional court for Europe, at least as the protection of the rights recognised in the EU Charter is concerned.

On the contrary, by deferring all judgment and providing no clear indication as to the way the balance is likely to tilt, the AG (and the CJEU if they follow the 'soft, self-restrained' approach in Deckmyn and Vrijheidsfonds) would once more be refusing to exercise their function as a constitutional court and, in my view, would indicate that all the fuss and complicated negotiations of the (prior involvement mechanism in order to authorise) accession of the EU to the European Convention of Human Rights would have been unnecessary and superficial, given their lack of commitment to a substantive and effective enforcement of the necessary protections of fundamental rights in the EU (for a critical assessment of the process and mechanisms involved in the accession, see the various contributions to Tzevelekos et al, The EU Accession to the ECHR).

From this perspective, I will be eagerly awaiting the CJEU's final ruling in Deckmyn and Vrijheidsfonds, although I must say that I do not hold high expectations and I would bet that they will follow the approach suggested by the AG (maybe including one or two 'strong' obiter dicta but) refusing to provide a clear indication of the way the balance of fundamental rights should tilt. 

Let's hope the wait is over soon.

Is Costa v Enel forgotten? CJEU trips over supremacy and direct effect in case concerning Art 41(2)(c) CFREU (C-313/12)

In its Judgment of 7 Movember in case C-313/12 Romeo, the Court of Justice of the EU issued an important ruling concerned with the extension of the obligation to state reasons derived from Article 41(2)(c) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU in purely domestic situations.
In the case at hand, the CJEU was especifically presented with a query regarding the compatibility with Article 41(2)(c) CFREU (and, more generally, with the case law on the duty to state reasons) of an Italian rule whereby faulty administrative decisions would not be quashed if the authorities supplemented their statement of reasons in subsequent court proceedings.
In my view, the reasons offered by the CJEU to decline jurisdiction to respond to the questions referred by the Italian court show a poor understanding of (or a lack of willingness to give effect to) the changed nature of the Charter after the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon. As very clearly stated, 'the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is now legally binding, having the same status as primary EU law' [for discussion, see S Douglas-Scott, 'The European Union and Human Rights after the Treaty of Lisbon' (2011) Human Rights Law Review 11(4): 645-682].
In that regard, keeping in mind that Article 6(1) of the Treaty on European Union now very clearly indicates that 'The Union recognises the rights, freedoms and principles set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union of  [...] which shall have the same legal value as the Treaties' (emphasis added), it is very hard to understand how the CJEU can have unblinkingly held that:
it cannot be concluded that [...] Article 41(2)(c) of the Charter or indeed other rules of European Union law concerning the obligation to state reasons for acts have been made directly and unconditionally applicable (sic), as such, by [the relevant Italian rules], so that internal situations and situations relating to European Union law are treated in the same way. Therefore it must be held that, in the present case, there is no clear European Union interest in a uniform interpretation of provisions or concepts taken from European Union law, irrespective of the circumstances in which those provisions or concepts are to apply (C-313/12 at para 37, emphasis added).

I cannot get my head around the fact that, as no one would doubt, the CJEU has kept for time immemorial the position that the Treaties (now including the Charter of Fundamental Rights  for these purposes) are supreme and directly effective without any need for internal measures that receive them or recognise that they are directly and unconditionally applicable in all EU Member States--and, yet, it shows a stark resistance to apply these principles to the Charter (see also C-482/10 Cicala).
As very clearly summarised in Costa v Enel,
A Member State's obligation under the [Treaty], which is neither subject to any conditions nor, as regards its execution or effect, to the adoption of any measure either by the States or by the Commission, is legally complete and consequently capable of producing direct effects on the relations between Member States and individuals. Such an obligation becomes an integral part of the legal system of the Member States, and thus forms part of their own law, and directly concerns their nationals in whose favour it has created individual rights which national courts must protect (6/64, summary, point 7).
This, together with Art 6(1) TEU surely determines the supremacy and direct effect of the Charter--as also supported by an a contrario interpretation of Protocol No 30 on the Application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union to Poland and the United Kingdom (what would be the purpose of the Protocol if not precisely to exclude such supremacy and direct effect regarding the UK and Poland?). Then, if the CJEU has not forgotten Costa v Enel, the only relevant question is: how are Judgments like Cicala and Romeo possible? Why is the CJEU (suddenly) so averse to (continuying to) act as constitutional court at EU level?

#CJEU incorrectly analyses 'State imputability' and gives green light to (pseudo)fiscal #Stateaid schemes (C-677/11)

In its Judgment of 30 May 2013 in case C-677/11 Doux Élevages and Coopérative agricole UKL-AREE  the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has carried on with its line of case law in C-345/02 Pearle and Others and stressed that, according to Art 107(1) TFEU, State aid cannot exist if the economic advantage under analysis is not funded by 'State resources' and there is no 'imputability to the State'.

In the case at hand CIDEF, a French agricultural inter-trade organisation (for poultry), introduced the levying of a 'cotisation volontaire obligatoire' (sic) (CVO) for the purposes of financing common activities decided on by that organisation. The contribution was initially introduced in 2007 as a voluntary measure for the members of CIDEF, but it was extended to all traders in the sector on a compulsory basis in 2009 by a tacit Ministerial decision to accept that extension (see press release).

Two complainants challenged the extension of the CVO on the basis that making it a mandatory payment for all traders in the sector (ie going beyond the group of members of CIDEF) involved State aid. The French Conseil d’État referred the matter to the CJEU for a preliminary ruling, which has decided that there is no element of State aid in the mandatory extension of the CVO to all traders in the industry concerned.

The reasoning of the CJEU indeed follows its previous line of case law in the area of State aid and adopts a very narrow approach to the concept of economic advantages 'granted by a Member State or through State resources'. On the point of the involvement of State resources, the CJEU finds that
the contributions [...] are made by private‑sector economic operatorswhether members or non-members of the inter‑trade organisation involved – which are engaged in economic activity on the markets concerned. That mechanism does not involve any direct or indirect transfer of State resources, the sums provided by the payment of those contributions do not go through the State budget or through another public body and the State does not relinquish any resources, in whatever form (such as taxes, duties, charges and so on), which, under national legislation, should have been paid into the State budget. The contributions remain private in nature throughout their lifecycle and, in order to collect those contributions in the event of non‑payment, the inter-trade organisation must follow the normal civil or commercial judicial process, not having any State prerogatives (C-677/11 at para 32, emphasis added).
This should come as no big surprise, since this has become the standard position in the case law of the CJEU (ie that if the State 'does not touch' and 'should not have touched' the money, it cannot constitute a 'State resource'). However, one may wonder why the Court has not addressed the point of the (pseudo)fiscal nature of the imposition of a contribution (ie a levy) on undertakings that do not belong to the private organisation charging it. In the absence of a voluntarily established association (via membership), the prerogative of the inter-trade association to require payments from undertakings surely goes beyond the sphere of powers created by private law (taxation is one of the very exclusive powers of the State). In that regard, the reasoning followed by the CJEU on the point of 'imputability to the State' requires some close scrutiny. The Court finds that
35 […] Article 107(1) TFEU covers all the financial means by which the public authorities may actually support undertakings, irrespective of whether or not those means are permanent assets of the public sector. Therefore, even if the sums corresponding to the measure in question are not permanently held by the Treasury, the fact that they constantly remain under public control, and therefore available to the competent national authorities, is sufficient for them to be categorised as State resources (see [C‑482/99 France v Commission (2002) ECR I‑4397], paragraph 37 and the case-law cited).
36 In the case in the main proceedings, the conditions laid down by the Court in paragraph 37 of the judgment in France v Commission are not met. It is clear that the national authorities cannot actually use the resources resulting from the [CVOs] to support certain undertakings. It is the inter-trade organisation that decides how to use those resources, which are entirely dedicated to pursuing objectives determined by that organisation. Likewise, those resources are not constantly under public control and are not available to State authorities.
37 Any influence that the Member State may exercise over the functioning of the inter-trade organisation by means of its decision extending an inter-trade agreement to all traders in an industry is not capable of altering the findings made in paragraph 36 of this judgment.
38 It is clear from the case-file submitted to the Court that the legislation at issue in the main proceedings does not confer upon the competent authority the power to direct or influence the administration of the funds. Moreover, as the Advocate General noted in point 71 of his Opinion, according to the case-law of the competent national courts, the provisions of the Rural Code governing the extension of an agreement introducing the levying of contributions within an inter-trade organisation do not permit public authorities to exercise control over CVOs except to check their validity and lawfulness.
39 Regarding that control, it should be noted that Article L. 632-3 of the Rural Code does not permit making the extension of an agreement dependent upon the pursuit of political objectives which are specific, fixed and defined by the public authorities, given that that article non‑exhaustively lists the very general and varied objectives that an inter-trade agreement must promote in order to be capable of being extended by the competent administrative authority. That conclusion cannot be undermined by the obligation imposed by Article L. 632-8-I of that code to inform the authorities of the way in which CVOs have been used.
40 Moreover, there is nothing in the case-file submitted to the Court permitting it to consider that the initiative for imposing the CVOs originated with the public authorities rather than the inter-trade organisation. It is important to emphasise, as the Advocate General observed in point 90 of his Opinion, that the State was simply acting as a ‘vehicle’ in order to make the contributions introduced by the inter-trade organisations compulsory, for the purposes of pursuing the objectives established by those organisations.
41 Thus, neither the State’s power to recognise an inter-trade organisation under Article L. 632-1 of the Rural Code, nor the power of that State to extend an inter‑trade agreement to all the traders in an industry under Articles L. 632-3 and 632-4 of that code permit the conclusion that the activities carried out by the inter‑trade organisation are imputable to the State (sic) (C-677/11 at paras 35 to 41, emphasis added).
The reasoning followed by the CJEU could not be more puzzling, particularly at para 41, which to me seems plainly wrong. Given the literal tenor of Art 107(1) TFEU, which sets that the prohibition of State aid covers 'any aid granted by a Member State or through State resources in any form whatsoever' it is clear that the analysis of the 'imputability to the State' must cover the aid measure and not the activities of the beneficiary of such measure. 

Therefore, the conclusion reached in para 41 of C-677/11 is simply a non sequitur. After having recognised that 'the State was simply (sic) acting as a ‘vehicle’ in order to make the contributions introduced by the inter-trade organisations compulsory, for the purposes of pursuing the objectives established by those organisations' (para 40), it is an illogical step to conclude that such (vehicular) intervention is not imputable to the State. In my opinion, this plainly makes no sense.

The implications of the Judgment in Doux Élevages are likely to be far fetched, since they open the door to a floodgate of (pseudo)fiscal measures designed by Member States (by indirect influence to the relevant inter-trade or similar organisations, which should not be readily proven, see para 40 ab initio) to compensate for the stricter (?) controls on aid directly granted by public authorities. 

The only remaining hope at this point is that, under the relevant constitutional law of the Member States, such (pseudo)fiscal levies are considered unconstitutional limitations to the right to property, since the State is the only entity vested with powers to extract money payments not voluntarily accepted, at least as a general implication of the membership of an association (as was the case in Pearle, although any element of mandatory membership obviously would grant the same conclusion). And, consequently, this (pseudo)fiscal structure  that allows non-State entities to extract mandatory payments can be seen as an excessive restriction of the right to property under some Member States constitutional law (such as in Spain, for instance).

Maybe with the accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights and a (stronger) duty to protect the right to property under Art 1 Protocol No. 1 ECHR (which includes rules on taxation not mentioned in the right to property recognised in Art 17 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU), the CJEU will need to revisit this line of case law.