LA Times Doesn't Want to Be Framed

By: Steve Outing

Life sure is interesting on the Internet. There's always some new ethical or legal issue popping up as the Web continues to evolve as a publishing medium.

An issue that is about to heat up again is the practice of some aggregator Web sites taking content from news sites and putting it within "frames," such that the aggregator site's branding surrounds or is attached to the targeted site's original content. Or inserting advertisements -- a.k.a., "intersticials" -- in between the Web content of other publishers. (The latter is a new technique being employed by Microsoft-owned WebTV.)

Yes, the framing debate sounds familiar. It was the crux of a lawsuit filed earlier this year by six large U.S. newspaper companies against TotalNews, a small Web news aggregator site that was creating links to news content on the Web, but putting the content within a frame -- thus surrounding a news site's pages with TotalNews branding and TotalNews-sold ads. The publishers forced TotalNews to abandon its technique. The site still links to other news sources on the Web, but clicking on a news link on TotalNews now brings up a new browser window that contains no TotalNews branding.

While the publishers "won" that round, because the case was settled out of court no legal precedent was set regarding the practice of framing publishers' sites.

Now, the Los Angeles Times, one of the complainants in the TotalNews lawsuit, is targeting at least three other sites that employ techniques of presenting LAT Web content attached to branding and/or advertising that is not LAT's.

According to the Times' director of new business development, Harry Chandler, the staff has identified three Web ventures that it finds objectionable. The newspaper company plans to send "cease and desist" letters to the companies, demanding that they stop using LAT content in a presentation that it finds objectionable and views to be illegal.

1) Lycos "Guides." The popular search engine has a series of "Guides," including an area where it points its users to news content on the Web. Clicking on a particular story link, a Lycos user will retrieve the news story as it exists on the news site's server. (The news site thus records a page impression on its server.) But at the top of the browser window is a thin horizontal bar containing Lycos branding and navigation buttons. And in the address window of a user's Web browser, you see a URL instead of the newspaper's. Click anywhere in the news site, and the Lycos navigation bar always stays in view. (Lycos does put a "Remove frame" button in the navigation bar, so a user can easily shed the Lycos branding.)

It's worth noting that this practice is evident elsewhere on the Web. Other examples include The Mining Company, which links to sites and maintains a navigation bar on top of the content of other sites, and DiveIn, a community guide site in various U.S. cities which links to local media Web sites while retaining its own navigation in the presentation.

2) Free Republic. This is a one-man Web site that links to news sites and puts them in a frame while maintaining its own branding and navigation. The site is mirroring what TotalNews did before the publishers ganged up on it and forced an end to the practice. In its "Forums" area, Free Republic goes one step further in using news sites' Web content, actually copying the full text articles from news sites and placing the text on its server, where Free Republic visitors are invited to hold online discussions and submit comments about the articles.

Free Republic is the project of one man, John Robinson of Fresno, California. The site takes a right-wing political stance, with many links to organizations that seek to impeach President Bill Clinton, and such groups as a defense fund for Paula Jones, Clinton's accuser in a sexual harassment controversy.

Robinson believes that he has the right to post full-text articles from news Web sites because his is not a commercial site. "The articles are posted under the 'fair use' rules and are for education and discussion purposes only," he says.

3) WebTV. Microsoft-owned WebTV made headlines this week over its concept of interjecting its own advertising messages in between pages of Web sites as they are accessed by WebTV network users. As a WebTV user peruses a Web site (like, the normal delays between pages as they are called up by the user is filled with brief advertisements that appear each time a new page is requested.

Hands off!

"These people are in effect appropriating ownership of our copy," says Leah Gentry,'s editorial director for new media. "It's ours. They do not have our permission to use it. Period."

Chandler says that the Times is just trying to protect its property, and is "not trying to be anti-progress." Experimenting with new business models is a good thing, "but when someone starts using third-parties' content without permission, we think that's inappropriate and illegal," he says. When someone puts their material over LAT material on the Web, that's a copyright infringement.

One way to look at the controversy over framing news sites is by way of analogy. Chandler says that what WebTV and sites that frame content are doing is really no different than if a newsstand agent put a sticker on every magazine that it sold advertising a product, without the magazine publisher's permission. Or if a local cable television operator inserted a logo or tiny ad in the lower screen of a network TV show while it was being broadcast. In these examples and with the Web framers, these are all delivery agents only and they do not have the right to interject their own brand or advertising onto a publisher's content, Chandler says.

The Times is going after these three companies because its management believes that not to do so would set a terrible precedent. The "big guys" like WebTV "should know better," says Chandler, "and the little guys will know better." Even a small personal Web site like Free Republic deserves to be made an example in order to discourage future framing of third-party Web sites, the argument goes.

Chandler emphasizes that LAT is not opposed to companies like Lycos approaching them to participate in arrangements where LAT content might be framed. But they must be asked first, and the deal must have something in it for LAT, he says.

The legal fight to come

Chandler believes technical solutions available to publishers -- such as employing "frame-busting" code or blocking out http requests from domains known to employ objectionable framing techniques -- are inferior to setting a legal precedent over the practice. "I think this has to go to court eventually," he says. (Besides, frame-breaking code also can foul up a Web site's approved relationships with sites that do frame -- such as New Century Network's Newsworks service.)

Roman Godzich, president of TotalNews, also agrees that a legal case that makes it through the courts and establishes some case law is needed over the issue of framing. The TotalNews lawsuit could have been that case, but the small company didn't have the resources to fight. Godzich says that during the experience he "felt like a canoe between six battleships."

"I welcome the concept of this battle (over framing) if it's fought out legally, and on a much more financially well balanced playing field," he says.

Godzich thinks that over time, publishers will come to the conclusion that being "framed" is acceptable, because they will realize the benefit of the extra traffic that frame-using Web aggregators bring them. "Even those who do mind will eventually stop minding," he says. Also, new Web technologies will continue to be introduced, changing the situation again. Publishers who are hard-nosed about how others use their content may always have a gripe on the Internet as new technologies and business models are tried out.

The TotalNews founder also believes that publishers are out of synch with the Internet-using public on this issue. He says that during his dispute with the newspaper publishers, he received lots of supportive mail from people who perceived the TotalNews case as an "us against them" legal battle between the "Internet culture" and traditional media. Old media companies might win the legal battle, yet lose the public's good will in the process, he suggests.

(Final note: I also contacted Lycos for this column. But because they had not yet heard from the Times about its objections to the framing of news content in the Lycos Guides area, its chief spokesperson declined to comment. "But we always try to be good netizens," says Lycos' Sarah Garney.)


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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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