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Deep Linking Lunacy

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A Danish court has ruled that "deep linking" is illegal, and pundits say this decision spells doom for the Net. Should you be worried? Hardly.

At issue is the practice of so-called "deep linking," creating links directly to individual web pages within a site, rather than to the home page. Deep linking is a time-honored practice that has existed since the very beginning of the web. Indeed, deep linking was one of the fundamental design principles that helped the web grow as quickly as it did, by making it easy for people to directly access individual web pages.

Your bookmarks or favorites are typically deep links. So are search engine results.

Deep links are nothing more than a URL and some words describing that URL. In other words: facts. Facts are not copyrightable. And yet the Danish court has somehow managed to interpret the law in a way that disregards both the un-copyrightable nature of facts and the fundamental operation of the web.

The recent deep linking court case was brought by the Danish Newspaper Publishers Association against Newsbooster.com. Newsbooster "scrapes" news from thousands of newspapers, extracting direct links to these stories using headlines as the link text. Unlike search engines, which also crawl and index the full text of web pages, Newsbooster and other "scrapers" extract only links and titles.

When users click on these links, they go directly to the page on the newspaper's web site. There are no frames or other devices used to "trap" viewers on Newsbooster's site. Newsbooster links are similar to the news links below, provided by Moreover.com.

The Newspaper Publishers Association argued that in bypassing their front pages, Newsbooster links deprive them of advertising revenue. Further, they asserted that Newsbooster is in direct competition with newspapers.

In other words, in offering a service that makes it easy to find and access news stories (with their accompanying ads) directly on a newspaper web site, Newsbooster is somehow both competing with and diminishing the revenues from users viewing ads accompanying those stories. The court, in a stupefying interpretation of the Danish Copyright Act, agreed.

Let's follow the logic of the decision further. If deep linking is illegal, search engines are the worst offenders, because they create deep links to the entire web. Let's put them out of business.

Next up, online phone directories because they offer addresses and telephone numbers that allow you to directly contact individuals or businesses. Likewise mapping services, because they graphically display locations and provide driving directions.

TV listings. Price-comparison shopping engines. Weblogs. All theoretically illegal due to their rampant practice of deep linking.

But why stop with the web? How about those sneaky academics, citing the work of fellow scholars with footnotes to specific articles using exact page numbers in the journals that published them? And just think of the worst offenders of all -- librarians, who not only help patrons find books, magazines and other materials but often even show them where to find specific information within the works?

Sites that prohibit deep linking suffer from malignant stupidity, driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of the web and user needs. The whole point of having a public web site is to encourage users to visit, and deep links make finding and visiting sites easy. Home pages, typically offering cluttered design and feeble excuses for site search tools, make finding content much more difficult.

And as any webmaster who has even a whit of experience knows, it's incredibly easy to force pages to "redirect" with just a simple snippet of code. Don't want a visitor entering your site through a given page? Add a redirect command and they'll automatically -- and instantly -- be viewing any page of your choosing, regardless of the link they clicked on. It's child's play.

The newspapers celebrating this decision will likely find that the court's agreeing with their idiotic deep linking policies is a Pyhrric victory. This decision, if upheld, won't destroy the web -- it will Balkanize it. Sites that prohibit deep linking will likely encounter a backlash among the web community, and find that people don't link to them at all.

Search engines will also be wary of these sites. In other words, sites enjoining access by any route other than their home page will find that they are isolated and cut off from the web community. They may have loyal users, but the web community as a whole will either ignore or be ignorant of their existence. What a great strategy to attract advertisers!

This isn't the first time a court has ruled on the legality of deep linking, and likely won't be the last. Apart from creating a (likely temporary) inconvenience for Newsbooster, the ruling isn't likely to have any significant ongoing impact.

If you want to learn more about this issue, including elegantly reasoned essays on the legality of linking, check out the links below. And please note: According to Danish law, most of the deep links offered below can be considered illegal.

Newsbooster
http://www.newsbooster.com/
With subtle irony, Newsbooster's front page offers links to numerous sources of information on the current deep linking controversy, including background, commentary and a transcript of the Danish's court's decision.

Deep Link Foes Get Another Win
http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,53697,00.html
A Danish company can no longer link to content within the website of a Danish newspaper, in the latest test on whether deep linking is legally permissible.

Deep Linking
http://www.ala.org/alaorg/oif/deeplinking.html
Links to articles and commentary about deep linking, selected by the American Library Association.

Links and Law
http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/LinkLaw
Myths about Links
http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/LinkMyths.html
Comments from Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the web, about the legality of links and common myths that tend to persist about linking.

The Link Controversy Page
http://www.jura.uni-tuebingen.de/˜s-bes1/lcp.html
Though somewhat dated, this page offers a comprehensive set of links to the legal issues, precedent and problems of using hyperlinks on the web.

Search Engines and Legal Issues
http://searchenginewatch.com/resources/legal.html
As search engines have grown as an industry, a number of lawsuits and legal issues have arisen in relation to them. This collection of articles from Search Engine Watch is organized by type of dispute,including many articles on issues related to linking and crawling.

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