In a case that could have widespread implications for the future of Internet competition, a federal judge has ruled that online companies can legally provide links to rival Web sites.
At issue was whether startup Tickets.com, Inc. had a legal right to link its site to pages deeply embedded within the site of its chief competitor, Ticketmaster.com. The lawsuit, filed by Ticketmaster Online-City Search, Inc., argued that the practice, known as hyperlinking, should be banned.
Hyperlinking Cuts Both Ways
Hyperlinking, of course, is one of the fundamental technologies of the World Wide Web. It has raised the ire of some powerful online entities, however, because small competitors can use hyperlinks to avoid the costs of developing their own content.
Yet the use of hyperlinks cuts in two directions. Leading content portals such as Yahoo! and CNET.com depend upon hyperlinks to provide news and other information on their sites. This linking benefits both the smaller content sites and the larger portals.
Judge Dismisses Claim
In dismissing four of Ticketmaster’s claims, U.S. District Court Judge Harry L. Hupp ruled that “hyperlinking does not itself involve a violation of the Copyright Act.”
The judge also said, “There is no deception in what is happening. This is analogous to using a library’s card index to get reference to particular items, albeit faster and more efficiently.”
Ticketmaster Plans To Pursue Complaint
In response to the judge’s decision, W. Thomas Gimple, co-chairman and chief executive officer of Tickets.com, said the decision “supports Tickets.com’s position that consumers should be free to surf the Web and gain access to information, without unwarranted restriction.”
Ticketmaster sees hyperlinking as a way for its rival to simply horn in on a considerable wealth of online information.
“If we spend substantial money to build up a site, why should they be able to take that and build their business on the backs of our hard work?” said Robert Platt, attorney for Ticketmaster.
Reportedly, Ticketmaster will now file an amended complaint attempting to reinstate the dismissed claims, despite the judge’s ruling that “deep linking by itself does not necessarily involve unfair competition.”
The judge qualified his ruling by saying that hyperlinking cannot be considered illegal if consumers understand whose site they are on and that one company has not simply duplicated another’s page.
Utah Judge Says Linking Not Legal
Not all judges have come out in favor of hyperlinking. Last year, a federal judge in Utah ruled that linking violates copyright law and issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting Jerald and Sandra Tanner, long time critics of the Mormon church, from posting the URLs to the Mormon Church Handbook of Instructions on their Utah Lighthouse Ministry Web site.
Judge Tena Campbell said that, based on a 1993 ruling, Web users were essentially violating copyright law every time they visited a site and the site’s contents were downloaded into memory. Campbell contended that by providing the link, the defendants were responsible for the Web surfer’s copying.
Following that logic, Cambpell ordered that the Tanners remove the offending links.
The Tanners’ lawyer has notified the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, Colorado that there will be an appeal.