One of the unique features of the Internet creating a dispute is the ability to link to other documents or files with another document. Linking is fundamental to the world wide web and without it there would be no Internet. In certain cases however linking can be used in a way that is either illegal or unethical and that may violate copyright, defamation, or unfair competition laws. A legal case in Britain exemplifies the problem. In certain situations, links can be used in a way that may violate copyright, defamation, or unfair competition laws (Bolin).
The Shetland Times Case: A Scottish case, Shetland Times, Ltd. v. Dr. Jonathan Wills and Another, has received a great deal of attention recently, particularly from members of the Internet community who are concerned about its implications for linking practices. Shetland Times provides an illustration of some of the potential problems with linking that are outlined in the preceding section.
The Shetland Times operates a site on the World Wide Web through which it makes available many of the items in the printed version of its newspaper. The "front page" of the Times' site (i.e., the page which appears upon initial access to the site) consists of a number of news headlines with embedded links to corresponding articles. The intent of the Times, like many other content-providers, is to sell advertising space on its front page once the site achieves a significant amount of traffic.
The Shetland News, a competitor of the Times, also operates a web site, with a layout similar to that used by the Times. For two weeks prior to the initiation of the suit, the News had reproduced, on its own front page, the headlines appearing on the Times' front page. The reproduced headlines were directly linked to articles on pages created and maintained by the Times. Because of their configuration, these links bypassed the front page of the Times. The Times asked for a court order temporarily preventing the News from maintaining the links, arguing that such links constitute copyright infringement.
The presiding judge agreed that the Times had presented at least a prima facie case of copyright infringement based upon the United Kingdom's law governing cable television program providers. First, the judge reasoned that the service provided by the News was sufficiently like that provided by cable television to justify applying the laws governing the latter medium. Second, he found that the articles were being sent by the Times but through the web-site maintained by the News. In terms of the cable TV analogy, the News was interposing itself between the Times and its customers by routing the Times' transmissions through its own web-site. In the process, the front page of the Times' site (on which paid advertisements appear) was bypassed, significantly diminishing the value of the site to potential advertisers. Finally, the judge stated that the headlines may be sufficiently long to have copyright protection, and therefore the copying of the headlines (and not necessarily the links) might be a violation of copyright law.
The relevance of this preliminary decision to linking on the web in general is unclear. The judge ruled without a complete understanding of the technology involved, and based the ruling on U.K. law governing cable television. As a result, it would be inaccurate to say that the ruling represents the position that links to underlying web pages (not the front page of a site) are illegal under U.K. law (Bolin).
As the Shetland Times case shows the Internet provides interesting new questions beyond the scope of traditional media. If the Northern Star were to publish the headlines and articles directly from another newspaper there would be serious trouble. One of the few similarities between the Shetland Times case and the print newspaper industry is the use of news services such as the associated press. These articles are republished by any newspaper that pays for the service. The Shetland News was getting the Shetland Times news service for free via linking. The judge made no mention of the legality of giving a different title and then linking to the article. However it is clear that such a practice is unethical.
COPYRIGHT ON THE WEB