RealTime IT News

Can "Deep Linking" Lead to Deep Trouble?

When Robert and Weldon Johnson received the letter, they thought it must be from some friends pulling a prank. After all, it's not everyday they receive stern letters from law firms. But after checking the stationery and the e-mail address, the twin brothers behind the small LetsRun.com Web site realized the letter was real: Runner's World, the 800-pound gorilla of running news, was threatening them with a lawsuit.

Their mistake: Linking directly to a runnersworld.com interview with 800-meter Olympic champion Peter Snell. Instead of linking to the home page, LetsRun.com sent readers directly to the "printer-friendly" version of the article, deep inside the site. They say they did this because runnersworld.com would not archive stories properly, leaving links susceptible to inaccuracy.

The lawyers for Rodale Inc., the publisher of Runner's World, said that LetsRun.com's deep linking constituted copyright infringement. Ominously, the letter from attorney Allen Tullar concluded: "Rodale is prepared to take any and all necessary steps to protect and enforce its rights under the United States Copyright Act."

For the Johnson brothers, serious distance runners training for the Olympic Trials in Flagstaff, Ariz., the letter was a challenge to their integrity and the hard work they'd put into LetsRun.com. In the week since, the brothers have maintained a loud online tiff with Runners World over the perceived threats. The feud has pitted the hardcore devotees of LetsRun.com versus the mass-market muscle of Runner's World, which boasts a circulation of 500,000.

But what might be an interesting David vs. Goliath story in the close-knit running community could turn out to be a harbinger of more legal cases where publishers seek to control their content by targeting deep links.

More Bark Than Bite

Last month, Avi Adelman, a Dallas man who publishes a local news site called BarkingDogs.org, received a cease-and-desist letter from David Gray, a lawyer representing the media company Belo Corp. The letter accused Adelman of copyright infringement for deep linking to articles on the Web site of the Belo-owned Dallas Morning News.

"In the Internet sense, I thought this is the dumbest thing I've ever heard," Adelman said. "The first thing you learn is how to link from here to there."

The letter from Belo's attorney pointed to the site's user agreement, which stipulates that a user can only link to its home page. Visitors to BarkingDogs.org can bypass the registration system with a hyperlink. According to Doug Isenberg, an attorney who practices intellectual property and Internet law in Atlanta, this presents a murky legal area but one easily resolved.

"I think maybe it's a lesson in planning your Web site," he said. "You need to find a technological solution and not rely on a legal one."

Adelman, who describes himself as a Net activist, turned to Ralph Nader's Public Citizen for help. The advocacy group is providing him with legal representation. Paul Alan Levy, a Public Citizen lawyer representing BarkingDogs.org, sent Belo's attorney a reply, calling the notion of deep links violating Dallas Morning News' copyright "entirely without merit, if not preposterous."

The deadline set in Belo's cease-and-desist letter expired yesterday, but Levy said he had not heard back from Belo's lawyers. Both Gray and a Belo spokesman were unavailable for comment.

Since BarkingDogs.org was the only site Levy knows of that received a letter, he said it appeared to be targeted enforcement. "It's certainly a way of suppressing free speech activity by inconvenient speakers," he said. Adelman is just bemused. "I wish I knew what was going on," he said. "This is so stupid."

The Missing Link

Until recently, the issue of deep linking seemed to belong to the Internet's early days. After all, links are what makes the Internet so unique. In what was thought to be the seminal case over deep linking, Tickets.com rebuffed a challenge from Ticketmaster over its practice of linking to pages deep in the Ticketmaster site. The judge in the case ruled that deep links do not violate copyright law, so long as it was clear who is responsible for the material. In his opinion, the judge compared hyperlinks to a card index at a library.

"I don't think anything is new," said Isenberg. "I think the argument that deep linking is illegal or a violation of copyright law is a very difficult legal argument to make."

Isenberg said the recent cases might be better explained by the bottom line: In a brutal advertising environment, publishers are willing to do whatever they can to generate page views -- even threaten legal action on shaky ground. In a follow-up letter to Adelman, Belo's lawyer made this very point, writing that deep links "allows the viewer to avoid the advertising, etc., on the homepage (which places our client in a bad position with respect to its advertisers, etc.)."

Robert Johnson agrees that other factors might be at play. "I think there's definitely some reason they targeted us," he said. "They're trying to act like this is a simple issue of them kindly asking us not to link to their printer-friendly stories. And that's simply not true." He pointed out that other sites have deep linked to articles on runnersworld.com without suffering similar tactics from Rodale.

Runner's World editor Amby Burfoot said the controversy is all a big misunderstanding, mostly attributable to his own lack of Web savvy. "In my own technological ignorance, I did not realize initially they were linking to our printer-friendly pages," he said. "As soon as someone pointed out they were linking to our printer-friendly page, we did the obvious thing and told our technological people to close."

Burfoot said the company would not pursue a legal solution, and he welcomed LetsRun.com to continue linking to runnersworld.com stories.

"They've seemingly backed down," Robert Johnson said. But the brothers remain ticked off about the incident, insisting Runner's World apologize for its heavy-handed tactics. "I think they thought we'd be intimidated by the lawyer," Robert Johnson said. "We're pretty much outraged how they've tried to defend themselves."