War in the Shetlands! – Internet Style

By: Steve Outing

The Internet is global. The Internet is local. That’s demonstrated clearly by a dispute between two competing news organizations in the Shetland Islands, Scotland. The Shetland News, an Internet-only news service (which calls itself Shetland’s “first daily newspaper”) and The Shetland Times, a weekly print newspaper which operates a World Wide Web site, are escalating a dispute over one’s Web links to the other’s stories into a nasty legal battle. This very local boxing match has worldwide implications for Internet publishing.

The dispute revolves around the Shetland News Web site’s practice of linking to stories on the Shetland Times Web site. Now, most publications like it when other Web publishers provide links to their sites — all the better if a competitor is driving traffic to their Web site. But Robert Wishart, managing director of The Shetland Times Ltd., objected to the News’ practice of linking directly to stories on “inside” pages of the Times site. He was able to get a Scottish judge to order the News to remove all links to the pages of the Times from the News’ Web site temporarily while awaiting final resolution of the matter in a pending judicial hearing.

In a publisher’s statement posted on the Times Web site, Wishart said: “Put simply, this is an argument over whether a publisher on the Internet retains copyright in any material once it goes ‘online.’ My view is that by incorporating our copyright material into (its) news service (the News) infringes our copyright.” He would be “perfectly happy with a proper link to our home page so that readers can have access to our reports in their intended context.”

On the other side is Dr. Jonathan Wills, managing director of Zetnews Ltd., publishers of the Shetland News, and a former employee of Wishart. Says Wills, “The practice of linking to other Internet publications is universal and, indeed, the very basis of the World Wide Web. This is a test case because, if The Shetland Times were to succeed in their frivolous and vindictive action, there would have to be a new Act of Parliament allowing the Internet to continue to function in (the U.K.), in its present form.”

It appears that resolution of the case will have to wait for the hearing (not yet set), since the Times on Monday rejected an offer by Wills to settle out of court. Wills offered to include a tag line with each link to a Shetland Times Web story that would say, “This is a link to a Shetland Times copyright report.”

Who’s right?

With the caveat that I am not a lawyer, this seems to me to be a pretty clear-cut case. (Although, whether the courts will follow a reasonable path in resolving this dispute is of course a dicey proposition.) The Times does not have much of a case, in my view.

Wishart’s concern is understandable. From his perspective, the News is using his paper’s articles, which he paid to produce, to enhance the News’ Web site. That would be a legitimate beef if the News were placing a copy of the Times’ stories on the News’ Web server. But rather, the News is merely linking to Times’ stories and photos as they exist on the publicly, freely accessible Times Web site.

As Wills contends, if Scotland’s courts ruled that linking to other Web sites was an infringement of a copyright owner’s rights, the World Wide Web as we know it would have to be outlawed in the U.K. That’s clearly preposterous, and Wishart’s argument is without merit in context of the greater global Internet.

I’ll grant that Wishart has a legitimate concern, if users of the News’ Web site click on a story link and are directed to a Times article, without realizing that the story was created by the Times. But that’s not the News’ fault; it’s the Times’ error for not clearly identifying all of their stories as their own.

The solution to this matter is quite simple, and it does not involve the legal process. My advice to Wishart, and any other Web publisher concerned about this issue, is to clearly brand every story on your Web site. Then if another publication — even a competitor — links to an article inside your Web news site, it’s perfectly clear to the reader who owns the copyright on that article and who originated it. The competitor linking to a clearly branded article within your Web site is doing you a big favor by bringing your site additional readers.

Sure, it would be nice if everyone who linked to our Web sites would graciously link to our home page, but that’s fantasy-land. It’s not going to happen, so publishers merely need to plan for Web readers who will by-pass their home pages — including branding and even advertising on these “inside” pages.

There are other alternatives — but going to court is not among them. Web sites can require user registration for access to inside pages, which alleviates the problem presented in this particular case. More sophisticated Web sites are comprised of pages that are created from a database on the fly; a page with the reader’s requested information is assembled and served up, rather than a static HTML page being sent to the reader. There are no permanent URLs that can be linked to by others. This is no easy matter, of course, and is probably beyond the budgets of either of these two Web sites.

I find it odd that this conflict has escalated to a court fight. It appears to be based on a misunderstanding on the part of the Shetland Times’ executives of what the Internet is all about — combined with some bad blood between the two key individuals involved in the dispute. (Wills claims that Wishart’s lawsuit is aimed at putting the fledgling Shetland News online venture out of business, since he can’t afford the legal bills to challenge the legal action. Wishard contends it’s a copyright issue.)

Copyright on the Internet is an important issue, and infringement must be taken seriously by all publishers operating on the World Wide Web. But this case is not about an infringement; it’s about an acceptable practice — linking — that is at the basis of the Web. Let’s hope the Scottish courts don’t muddy the waters with a bad decision that could make waves well beyond the Shetland Islands.

My further hope is that the two parties in this case will settle amiacably. A solution that benefits both parties, as I’ve outlined above, looks a lot better than a court battle.

E-mail to remain dominant Internet use

Stern magazine in Germany, using statistics developed by Morgan Stanley, says that e-mail will continue to be the dominant activity on the Internet into the next century. The Stern article, which ran on October 17, predicts that there will be 200 million e-mail users by the year 2000, compared to 152 million Web users. Here’s yet more evidence that publishers need to be devoting as much time to their e-mail publishing plans as Web-only strategy.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company.

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Published: October 30, 1996

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