More and more German cafés have been offering free wireless internet access to lure customers to their lattes and cakes, particularly in fashionable city centres, where the coffee bar competition is fierce.
Ansgar Oberholz, owner of favourite hipster haunt St. Oberholz in central Berlin, has had to give up the café’s own router and delegated his internet access to an external provider in order to protect himself legally. Gone are the days when guests could use his internet with a password that everyone knew.
“Now you have to go through an annoying registration procedure,” he said.
Oberholz received several cease-and-desist letters from avaricious lawyers over the last few months because guests were violating copyright by illegally downloading media.
Like many café-, restaurant- and hotel owners, Oberholz is now being threatened with heavy fines.
“As a landlord, he is not even legally allowed to check what his guests are doing over his wireless connection, since their correspondence is protected by privacy law,” said IT lawyer Thomas Stadler.
The issue has become a complex legal dispute, since copyright lawyers, who make huge profits by sending out hundreds of thousands of letters every year, insist that landlords are liable for what their internet connection is used for.
“This question has not been settled by the highest courts yet,” said Stadler.
Although Germany’s constitutional court did decide in May 2010 that private individuals were liable for their own internet connection, even if they did not download files personally, the issue is still not clear-cut for businesses.
Copyright lawyer Björn Frommer thinks café owners should be able to find a simple way to cover themselves – “They are professionals in dealing with social rules like under-age drinking,” he pointed out. He says guests could be made to click on a terms and conditions agreement on a start page, or cafés could block file-sharing sites.