Stop Me Before I Link Again

Why the Web is keeping lawyers busy.

TicketMaster is suing Sidewalk–Microsoft’s online city guide–for linking to its Web site. A half-dozen big media companies have targeted TotalNEWS with a lawsuit because, they say, the site is using Web technology to steal their content. Suddenly, the ease of linking from Web site to Web site, which makes the World Wide Web so useful, is generating lawsuits that cloud the right to link.

A world of interconnected information, where readers jump from one document to another, was first envisioned by engineer Vannevar Bush in 1945. His whirling system of motors, levers, and microfilm is to the Web what Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopters are to the Chinook CH-47. But you get the idea. Bush disciple Ted Nelson took the idea to the world of digital computers in 1962, calling his creation “hypermedia” and dubbing these jumping points “hyperlinks.” One early commercial hypermedia product was HyperCard, released with the Macintosh computer in 1987. HyperCard allows users to link “stacks” of information they’ve written or assembled on computer “notecards.” But the true promise of hypermedia was linking information across a global network, and that had to wait until 1992 and Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web.

The Web’s rapid acceptance owes much to the ease with which Web pages can be created. And the proliferation of the lawsuits owes much to the ease with which Web pages can be linked to one another. Creating links is easy because each Web page, and each image on the page, has a unique address on the Web called a URL (Universal Resource Locator). For instance, the URL for this page is http://www.slate.com/webhead/97-06-06/webhead.asp.

To see how this all works, follow me as I build a Web site containing home page A and image B.

A browser loading home page A sees that it refers to image B and loads that too, then displays the whole thing.

T he great thing about this scheme is that if you are on a slow connection to the Internet, you can tell your browser to ignore the images. This speeds things up quite a bit (click to find out how).

The bad thing about this scheme is that since every image has a public URL, anyone can use it. In the example below, some villain has co-opted image B for his nefarious (and libelous) ends.

The offending page doesn’t technically copy or distribute the image in question. It just points the user’s browser to address B. Some lawyers think that this may constitute a “public display,” similar to illegally publishing a copyrighted photograph in a newspaper, but this argument remains untested.

Interestingly, if the page simply provides a hyperlink to the image in question, the law becomes even murkier. Entertain, for a moment, this scenario: If we at Slate captured your voicemail recording and played it on our site without your permission, some lawyers would say that we had violated your copyright. But if we cited your telephone number instead, we wouldn’t be violating copyright laws–even though Web surfers could hear the same recording by dialing the number. Hyperlinks are like telephone numbers–but instead of dialing them, you click on them.

The TicketMaster dispute muddles this point further. The company is upset not because Sidewalk provided a hyperlink to TicketMaster’s site, but because Sidewalk provided a hyperlink “deep” into TicketMaster’s site. What is “deep”? Well, the page you’re looking at is relatively deep in Slate. To find your way here, you probably typed in Slate’s home page URL, http://www.slate.com. We showed you today’s cover, then our table of contents, and you eventually clicked on the “Webhead” link. But if a friend gave you the precise URL for this column, you could go directly to it. So, in a way, the link to this story is a “deep” hyperlink, because it avoids our home page.

This is what Sidewalk did: It recorded the URLs of TicketMaster’s transaction pages, where you buy tickets for specific shows. It then placed hotlinks to these URLs on its own pages that hype various concerts and theatrical productions. This angered TicketMaster because it allowed potential purchasers of tickets to avoid ads and promotions on TicketMaster’s home page and all the intermediate pages you must visit before you can buy a ticket. Returning to my voicemail analogy, it’s as if I cited not only your telephone number, but also the code to skip your clever message (hint: on most voicemail systems, press “#”). While this may not be friendly, it doesn’t seem like a violation of intellectual-property law.

W hile the lawsuit proceeds, TicketMaster and Sidewalk have exchanged some entertaining technological volleys. Click for a brief account of these.

Just as a Web page can include an image by citing that image’s URL, so also can it include another Web page by citing that page’s address. This technique is called “framing.” I framed pages in my last Webhead to compare search results from various search services. Slate’s lawyer tells me this sort of framing doesn’t violate anyone’s copyright (phew!). It’s called “fair use,” and is comparable to the quotation of a short passage of a book in a review.

So why did the news sites sue TotalNEWS? See for yourself. When you click to TotalNEWS, a column of icons for several news sites appears down the left side of the page. If you click, say, USA Today, up pops the USA Today Web site, but inside a frame. TotalNEWS’ advertisement remains visible. This definitely isn’t “fair use.” If courts decide that such framing constitutes a “public display,” or even that it causes confusion in the market (“unfair competition”), then TotalNEWS is violating intellectual-property law.

As we go to press, TotalNEWS has settled out of court. For details, see this June 6 Wired News story.