A ruling by a federal court in Utah could represent a body blow against a key feature of the Web: linking users of one site to information on other's.
Last week's ruling was intended to stop a nonprofit group from posting e-mails on its Web site that tell visitors where to find electronic copies of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints book online. The church maintained the postings violated its copyright on the book.
Observers familiar with Internet law said today the decision could be one signal of an increasingly closed Web of the future, far different from the freewheeling forum that users know today.
Judge Tena Campbell of the US District Court in Salt Lake City issued a temporary injunction on Monday against Utah Lighthouse Ministry, a Salt Lake City nonprofit that publishes what it calls "critical research" on the Mormon church. The group earlier this year had posted parts of the Church Handbook of Instructions, and had agreed to take the material down under an earlier temporary restraining order. It later posted e-mail from visitors to the site that gave URLs for other Web sites that had posted parts of the book.
The church sued Utah Lighthouse Ministry, claiming that by directing its visitors to other sites where they could find copyrighted material, the group was guilty of "contributory infringement" of the church's copyright.
Experts said the ruling in favor of the church could hold back the use of one of the Web's greatest tools, the ability to direct users from one site to another, either with information on URLs or with actual links. In particular, the ruling could make operators of Web sites more cautious about what information and links they provide, one intellectual property expert said.
"This could have some far-reaching, chilling effects if people are worried about liability," said Robert Gorman, an associate with the law firm Fulbright & Jaworski LLP, in New York.
Gorman said the ruling seems reasonable on its face, but could have much broader impact because of the nature of the Web.
"On the surface it's not totally out of line, in the sense that the judge has the legal background to say that people who are encouraging unauthorised reproduction of copyright materials are liable to charges of contributory infringement," he said.
Nevertheless, the Web is a unique medium where traditional copyright law is difficult to apply, he added. Providing a link that takes a user to a Web site that may contain copyrighted material isn't the same thing as reproducing a copyrighted work, Gorman noted.
"To restrict access just because there could be something unauthorized in the greater scheme of things will potentially have a much greater chilling effect," Gorman said.
Thomas Lipscomb, a founder of the Institute for the Digital Future, condemned the ruling. Although posting protected material would be a clear violation of copyright law, simply providing addresses or links is just free speech, not a crime itself, he said.
"If I tell you that you can fly to Taiwan and buy $50,000 worth of pirated software for $1,000, and you do it, what am I guilty of?" Lipscomb asked.
Even if the ruling is upheld, Lipscomb added, its effect might not be felt for several years. Although most content on the Web today is free, that is likely to change, he said.
"Once the assorted Jurassic Park of conventional publishers starts to try to make money in this area, they're going to enforce their copyrights vigorously," Lipscomb said.
Also, the bigger the data pipes that users have, the more the copyright battle will heat up, he added.
"Until we're in broadband, the amount of e-commerce in intellectual property of this kind will be very minor," Lipscomb said. "We're probably five years away from seeing a bloodbath."