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Showdown Averted in News Site Link Dispute

By Renay San Miguel
Jan 26, 2009 3:17 PM PT

It was supposed to be a legal showdown between the people who bring you The New York Times and the people who bring you community news; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists at the Gray Lady covering wars, presidential campaigns and Wall Street corporate meltdowns vs. low-paid reporters telling you about neighborhood zoning disputes, school district elections and reviews of new local restaurants.

Showdown Averted in News Site Link Dispute

However, a trial scheduled to begin this week that was supposed to help clarify the new, digital rules of journalism in the 21st century won't be happening. On Monday, community news publisher Gatehouse Media announced a settlement in its copyright infringement suit against the New York Times Co., owners of the Boston Globe and Boston.com.

At issue is the practice of linking -- to those in the business it's called "showing link-love": sending readers to a news Web site or blog by linking to its content from another news Web site or blog, or a news aggregator such as Google News. Many times, the original story's headline and the first paragraph of the story will appear on the linking site, as in the case of Gatehouse's "Wicked Local" links showing up on Boston.com.

Gatehouse, however, saw the practice as stealing copyrighted content, not to mention keeping readers from checking out related advertising on its original Web sites. It sued, which got many bloggers and digital media content providers wondering if the traffic from link-love balances out arguments that the practice is tantamount to theft.

Settlement Terms

Boston.com's method of publishing links of exact headlines and first paragraphs of wickedlocal.com content ends in March, both companies said in a three-page letter announcing terms of the settlement. Gatehouse says it will begin using technology to protect content on its Web site and RSS feeds, and the New York Times Co. promises to not circumvent those methods. But both companies say they will continue to link to each other in ways that should keep lawyers from getting involved.

Neither company admitted any wrongdoing and no one receives any damages in the matter. Legal experts are wondering if there's a precedent set for future claims involving deep-linking of someone else's content.

"Those of us who teach in the intellectual property area are keenly aware of this: that in all the great cases since the Internet era, many of them pose this problem where the law is limping along behind," Kate O'Neill, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law, told the E-Commerce Times. "That's not necessarily a bad thing. You don't necessarily want lawyers and courts running your economy."

For O'Neill, the question is what exactly is the content that's determined to be infringed upon. "If the content for some viewers isn't the story, it's just the headline, if that's the product, if that's where the real value is, then maybe that's where the big money is. If people are just surfing along and getting a glimpse of what happened yesterday and moving on, then the issue is, who's the audience and how local is it?"

Another Primer in New Media

Any promotion is good, said Mark Glaser, executive editor of PBS' MediaShift blog, which examines the changes being wrought on traditional media by digital technologies and business models.

"It's almost like an ad for your news organization, to have it running on another site," Glaser told the E-Commerce Times. "There's a lot more upside to having people link to you than having that go away. If you're trying to build a business and traffic, the business case is more for getting people to come to your material. As long as the excerpt is a small excerpt, you'll drive people to read more about it. And even if they don't, even if the argument is, 'well, they're getting all the information from the headline and excerpt,' I still think you gain something. They'll say, 'oh well, that's an interesting news source, I have to remember that Web site.'"

Glaser knows that some local companies that advertise on community-based Web sites value Internet traffic that can be turned into foot traffic in their stores or restaurants. "How valuable is that for local advertisers; bringing in people who don't even live in the locale?" Glaser asked. "But if it brings you more prominence in the outside world, and people hear about you, maybe that traffic isn't the most valuable traffic, but I think it's a good way to get your name out there."

Directions for Future Link-Love

Google News' aggregation service has been legally targeted before by news companies like Agency France-Presse and the Associated Press, with varied results, Glaser said. AFP disappeared from Google News; the AP made a deal, realizing the extent of Google's reach and traffic volume.

"That's the problem; copyright law and trademark law weren't written with this particular problem in mind," O'Neill said. "It was written to protect original content, not essentially a combination or linkage that somebody might want in a business model. If I'm going to write a story and then have targeted ads all around it, I want someone to compensate me for writing that story."

The Internet's very existence is already forcing attitude adjustments on the part of traditional media, says Taso Lagos, communications department lecturer at the University of Washington. "We live with freedom of information and if we put a price on information, where does it stop?" Lagos told the E-Commerce Times. "Everybody has to pay their bills, but if there's enough circulation and enough linkage, and people do go to the site's ads, I don't see why people have to suffer substantially. It's part of the price of living in a free society, but it doesn't always have to come down to dollars and cents."


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