German court sets legal parameters for people search

Yesterday, in a small Hamburg court room, something special happened – at least when it comes to the legal parameters of people search applications on the web.

The ligitator, a young woman, sued 123people. Specifically its German web property, which has recently been sold to Pages Jaunes Groupe, for showing a photo of herself on its landing page. The court, however, declared the defendant “not guilty”(in German). To our knowledge this has been the first ruling from a higher court in Europe that puts often critized people search engines out of their, supposedly, legal grey area.

When arguing for their decision, and 123people’s innocence, the judges were referring to another ruling that dates back to 2008, known as the “Google-Thumbnail” ruling. This made its way to Germany’s highest court, the “Bundesgerichtshof”. Plus, the court stated that 123people is “neither temporarly nor permanently storing any of the data” – another main criteria for proving 123people’s right to do so.

The final judgement by the Bundesgerichtshof basically said that Google is allowed to depict copyrighted image material on its SERPs in thumbnail format. The artist, who back then accused Google of infringing copyright laws, must have been aware that her material shows up in Google results, since her site had been search engine optimized and therefore knowingly been within the results.

The 123people judgement not only will send ripples (and reliefs) out in the world of people search engines worldwide but it is also going to be a precedent for further rulings. In another context it also illustrates how dependent online law is on Google’s practices on the web. It’s no secret that today’s law is light-years behind when it comes to an adequate jurisdiction in online law. The big players, mostly Google, set the agenda for what’s right and wrong. Other tech companies and startups are also referring to Google’s practices whenever any part of their business plan might be inflicting with national laws. Considering the fact that in “traditional” judicial terms, Google is (successfully) colliding with copyrighted material billions of times per day, why should other companies that rely on SEO not do so is well. There’s always Goliath, so why not make it happen for David as well.

Aside from the judgement, that happened in Hamburg yesterday, there has also been another ruling in regards to 123people (in German) in February 2010 (and probably as it happens to other people search eninges such as Yasni or Spock all the time) that stated that whenever users are putting up photos on Facebook, they hereby “agree to this by implication”.

If you happen to know of any similiar rulings around the globe then please let us know in the comments. In Germany, respectively Europe, the ruling coming out of Hamburg has definitely set an agenda for people search engines and other SEO focused startups pulling content from external sites.