Which Nation's Laws Apply to International Flights - High Court Guidance

As international airline passengers lounge comfortably in their seats, the last thing on their minds may be the legal system that applies to the aircraft at any one time as it passes through the airspace of one nation after another. That question was, however, very much the focus in a case of alleged worldwide copyright infringement.

The Performing Rights Society (PRS), which holds assigned worldwide copyrights in respect of the performance and communication of over 5.5 million musical works, launched proceedings in London against an international airline. It claimed that the unlicensed availability of repertoire works on the airline's in-flight entertainment systems amounted to an infringement of those rights.

The airline, owned by a Middle Eastern state, disputed the PRS's claim and argued that, in any event, the case should be resolved in its home country rather than in England. It submitted that the dispute was most closely connected to the state, which was clearly the most convenient forum for the case to be heard.

Ruling on the matter, the High Court noted that it was undisputed that, when one of the airline's jets is in the state or its airspace, the law of the state applies. The same is true when the aircraft is in international airspace. However, when an aircraft is in a destination country or its airspace, the law of that country applies. The position is less certain when the aircraft is in the airspace of a non-destination country.

The airline pointed out that the vast majority of its flights either start or finish in the state, as compared to only about 5 per cent in the UK. Destinations in the UK only represented about 3.4 per cent of the destinations served by the airline and its jets clearly spent much more time subject to the laws of the state than to those of England or any other country.

The Court, however, found that the amount of time the airline's aircraft spent subject to English law was much more than trivial. Whether the case was tried in England or in the state, the law of numerous countries would be engaged. The evidence indicated that relevant acts of alleged infringement took place in England, or its airspace, to an appreciable degree.

In considering whether the dispute was more closely connected to England or to the state, the Court noted that the PRS is registered in England, employing almost all of its staff in this country and none in the state. The airline has a substantial presence in England but is most closely linked to the state.

That and other factors were broadly neutral and the airline had failed to establish that the state was clearly and distinctly the appropriate forum for the case to be heard. There was no dispute that the English courts had jurisdiction to hear the case in that the proceedings had been served on the airline at its London branch. The matter would therefore proceed in England.