How to Control 'Para-sites'

By: Steve Outing

Last week in this column I discussed new Internet services that copy copyrighted content on other sites -- perhaps yours -- without express permission, using the (perhaps dubious) argument that World Wide Web content is implicitly free for re-use. While I made the argument that some of these sites can be viewed as increasing your traffic and shouldn't be blocked -- even if in some cases what's occurring may be a technical copyright infringement -- some Web publishers believe that these sites are "stealing our content without asking."

If you fall into the "I want to protect my content" camp, there are solutions available to block other companies from accessing your content (in order to redistribute it without your consent). Here's how to keep "para-sites" at bay:

Method #1: Tell them to stop. If another Web service is copying your Web site's content in order to redistribute it (perhaps by e-mail, as Digital Bindery does) or placing your material into a frame that contains advertising that's not your own (such as TotalNews does), and you object to the practice, try this approach first. Most companies are not interested in fighting with publishers, and will exclude your site from their service if you demand it.

Method #2: Mechanically thwart them. This tip comes from computer scientist G.A. Venkatesh, who suggests: "There is a simple way for Web sites that use scripts to control their individual pages by serving a page or parts of a page only if the link comes from within its Web site. Some Webmasters I know had to do this after 'para-sites' started placing links to selected content, and I think most publishers should start doing this. This is safer and more robust than doing things specific to certain 'para-site' protocols."

Method #3: Block them with special software. Use a Web content protection application, a piece of software that is installed on your server to restrict access to selected content to approved domains, or to prevent copying of images by anyone.

Method #4: Join them as publishing partners, if appropriate. Services such as Digital Bindery, which e-mails regular updates of any Web page to its users for free, promote partnerships with publishers, offering benefits for joining forces. Digital Bindery, for example, can become a Web site's e-mail delivery agent of choice. In return, Bindery will provide you with demographic data on who among its subscribers received your pages as e-mail delivery. It also offers a bounty for new subscribers to your pages who use the Bindery service.

Virtual padlocks

There are potentially many other "bad guys" out there who you should prevent from raiding your site's content. These are the people who will reference a piece of your content -- say, a copyrighted photograph or a cartoon -- and insert it into a Web page of their own, so that it appears that the image belongs to them. Clearly, these examples of copyright infringement are not to be tolerated, as they are denying you visitors to your pages and causing an increased load on your Web server as it sends out only the purloined images.

But legal action is not the only option, nor the wisest course. (Many who engage in illegal copying of copyrighted materials onto their Web pages are unsophisticated users who simply don't know or don't care that what they're doing is wrong. They're unlikely to make appropriate targets for lawsuits.) Web server helpers such as the SiteShield suite of applications from Maximized Software of Costa Mesa, California, are now available as server plug-ins that can control access to your pages by other sites, thus stopping copyright thieves cold.

Maximized offers several programs for Web servers that allow Webmasters to protect selected images and prevent their re-use, yet not interfere with online viewing by Web surfers; provide "reference protection," which prevents content from being included on a different Web site via unauthorized references; and restrict access to content from selected domains, which would allow a Web publisher to block a site like TotalNews, for example, from linking to its pages while permitting other sites to do so.

SiteShield's image protector works by intercepting image files as they are requested and transforming them to a protected format. A photo that is thus protected will appear normal on a Web page viewed by a Web user looking at your site. But when a user downloads the image to his local hard drive (a simple click and save operation in most Web browser software), the image is in a format that cannot be viewed in either an imaging application or on a Web browser.

The WebReferee reference protection program works to deter those people who build their own Web pages by referencing or linking to copyrighted content components of other sites. WebReferee recognizes an out of domain request for a piece of protected content and prevents access. Other sites that try to reference a protected piece of content will see an error message that redirects users to a new URL -- which can be the page you want surfers to see. It also lets the Webmaster create a list of "accepted" sites that are authorized to reference your content.

The third application by Maximized is called WebJuggler, and it may be the most useful to publishers concerned about how selected sites access and redistribute copyrighted content. According to Maximized Software president Ken Spreitzer, the program can be set up so that a server recognizes certain domains and returns a different Web page than it does to other visitors to the site.

For example, a news site that does not want part of its content to be redistributed by a service that e-mails Web pages to its users each time the pages are updated could configure their server, using WebJuggler, to return an error message whenever the e-mail service tried to copy pages from the news site. The error message page, which would get delivered to the e-mail service's users, could indicate that the news site does not permit third-party e-mail delivery and invite users to visit the news site. This technique also would be useful in blocking out known "pirate" domains.

Security balancing act

Finding the right approach to protecting your content is a tricky balance. I would recommend that publishers not go overboard in restricting access to their sites. Tools to protect copyrighted images, videos, Java applets, etc. are a welcome addition to a Web site's toolkit and will prevent blatant theft and re-use of copyrighted components of a publisher's site. Likewise, the ability to deter access to selected content by particular sites gives Webmasters the power to control which third-party Internet services are allowed to redistribute a news site's content. And you can do it without resorting to calling the lawyers.

The Maximized server applications are a good option for protecting content. What the company has done also can be created on an individual site basis by a talented programmer, and some sites have created home-grown solutions for blocking certain domains from accessing site content.

Yahoo! makes another scary move

Popular Internet directory service Yahoo! continues to make moves that might make newspaper publishers nervous. Like this one: TV Guide Online and Yahoo! have agreed to offer ZIP code-specific local television listings. From the "Get Local" home page on Yahoo!, users enter their ZIP codes (this is a U.S. only service for now) and receive a television grid for their area, including cable and broadcast schedules. Clicking on an individual program in the grid brings up a description of the show.

You might agree that this is a serious future threat to newspaper TV listings, given Yahoo!'s popularity as one of the two busiest sites on the World Wide Web -- and the expected growth in adoption of Internet access on television sets. Yahoo!'s other major threat to newspapers is its approach to online classifieds. It gives away liner ads on its metro guide sites (in addition to pointing to local media classifieds online), and in some cases has attracted a larger number of liners than the dominant media classifieds sections in print.

Yahoo! is making smart moves and partnerships that will bring it increased Web traffic and allow it to earn more advertising revenue, including in local markets. But its moves represent a threat to traditional newspaper publishing over the long term.


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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

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


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