Court blocks company's 'deep link to competitor's Web site

Online recruiting company StepStone ASA has obtained a court injunction in Germany preventing a competitor from providing hypertext links to StepStone's online job advertisements. The lawsuit is expected to provide an important test of the legality of 'deep links,' which bypass home pages and go directly to information deep within a site.

Online recruiting company StepStone ASA has obtained a court injunction in Germany preventing a competitor from providing hypertext links to StepStone's online job advertisements. The lawsuit is expected to provide an important test of the legality of "deep links," which bypass home pages and go directly to information deep within a site.

The case, against Danish media group OFiR.com AS, is one of the first based on new European Union copyright and database regulations, StepStone's legal firm Osborne Clarke OWA said in a statement Wednesday.

OFiR, which owns online recruitment services competing with StepStone's in Denmark, France, Germany and the U.K., has since removed the links, which were used to back a claim about the large number of job listings OFiR offers, Osborne Clarke said. StepStone objected to the link as "prejudicial to its brand position in the long term," and because the deep link bypassed its home page and banner advertising.

OFiR Managing Director Jørgen Wittenkamp was traveling Thursday and not available for comment, a spokesman for the company said.

Osborne Clarke said not all hypertext links are illegal, but that European courts can intervene if the links are "extensive and prejudicial to the site involved."

The EU regulations are meant to protect the work involved in compiling a database, such as a telephone directory, from unfair exploitation, said electronic commerce legal expert Alistair Kelman of the London-based consulting firm Telepathic Ltd.

"The EC (European Commission) some years ago came up with a directive, which has now been implemented into law across the community, on the protection of databases, so that while the information itself cannot be protected as a copyright work, if someone systematically extracts information, it can then be held that this is infringing on these special rights," Kelman said.

The legality of deep linking, and the potential impact that a ban on the practice would have on the functioning of the Web, have yet to be clarified, he said.

In the U.S., Ticketmaster Corp. settled a lawsuit against Microsoft Corp. over the practice of deep linking in 1999. Microsoft agreed not to direct users of its Sidewalk city guides to pages deep within the Ticketmaster site, but rather to point them to its home page. Microsoft has since sold off the Sidewalk sites.

A related recent dispute pits publishing company Haymarket Group Ltd. against Burmah Castrol PLC, a subsidiary of BP Amoco PLC. Haymarket is alleging that the oil company's Web site improperly included content from the publisher's sites within a Castrol-branded frame, a Haymarket spokesman said.

Kelman said in any case, companies can prevent abuse of their sites if they design them properly. "There are ways in which you can stop deep linking, if you ensure that people cannot drill down to that particular page on your site, that everything gets routed to the home page," Kelman said.

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