Links to sue for

Here we have a professional services firm and a news organisation and they are all willing to let a PR disaster explode around them for the sake of some policy that could be easily implemented by a few lines of code. I'm talking about linking.

Online links "may present trademark and copyright infringement issues".

- KPMG's global legal disclaimer.

"If you operate a website and wish to link to this site, you may link only to the home page of the site and not to any other page or subdomain of us."

- The Dallas Morning News' registration terms of service, which the paper seems to think applies even if you don't register.

In theory, I've just broken the law . . . I linked to the above sites in violation of their policies.

"Huh?" you might be saying.

The issue for these organisations is deep linking, or linking from another website to content below a home page. Rather than solve the problem with technology, they opted to bully sites into removing all links except those to their home pages.

These organisations simply don't get it. Their whining about copyright infringement because of deep linking is on par with a book publisher complaining that a library's card catalogue that indexes one of the publisher's books violates the publisher's copyright.

Here we have a professional services firm and a news organisation and they are all willing to let a public relations disaster explode around them for the sake of some policy that could be easily implemented by a few lines of code.

One well-publicised deep linking case has been that of BarkingDogs.org, a news website for the Lower Greenville area of Dallas. BarkingDogs had the temerity to deep link to stories within The Dallas Morning News site, DallasNews.com.

For some insane reason, the owners of The Dallas Morning News, a company named Belo, one of the nation's largest media companies, sent BarkingDogs a cease-and-desist letter. Belo's lawyers demanded that BarkingDogs only link to dallasnews.com's home page and contended that deep linking without permission violated the newspaper's copyrights.

There is so much wrong with the thinking of these companies. To begin with, there's the issue of the doctrine of fair use. I quote Bitlaw: "The doctrine of fair use developed over the years as courts tried to balance the rights of copyright owners with society's interest in allowing copying in certain, limited circumstances. This doctrine has at its core a fundamental belief that not all copying should be banned, particularly in socially important endeavours such as criticism, news reporting, teaching and research."

But that concept didn't stop National Public Radio from declaring that its no-links policy "was originally intended to maintain NPR's commitment to independent, noncommercial journalism. We have ... encountered websites of issue advocacy groups that have positioned the audio link to an NPR story such that one cannot tell that NPR is not supporting their cause. This is not acceptable to NPR as an organisation dedicated to the highest journalistic ethics, both in fact and appearance."

While you must agree that NPR has every right to protect abuse of its copyright -- for example, someone republishing whole audio shows -- stifling free speech and essentially disallowing fair use by trying to prohibit deep linking is obviously unethical.

In Europe, the Danish Newspaper Publishers' Association has taken a news aggregation company, Newsbooster, to court over deep linking. If the court finds in the DNPA's favour, the ruling will apply in Europe as a whole.

These organisations are being irrational. There are simple technical solutions. And until they stop acting like bullies, they can kiss my anchor. So sue me.

Link as deeply as you please to Gibbs. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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