Deep Thinking On Deep Linking

An online journal recently reported that IDG was blocking another publisher from linking to pages other than its home page and was even considering methods of collecting compensation from sites that engage in the practice known as “deep linking.”

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve used two deep links in the previous paragraph to lead you to material published inside a web site elsewhere that enhances the value of this piece. I’ve allowed you to find that source material conveniently instead of just sending you to the site’s home page. I’ve enhanced your experience with this site and increased the likelihood that you’ll come back.

I’ve also given attribution to two other sites and increased the likelihood that you’ll visit them again. By recognizing them as sources, I may have even bestowed upon them some level of credibility. If you clicked to read the material on the other sites, I’ve given the owners of those sites the opportunity to begin a communication directly with you and perhaps even monetize your relationship.

In short, I’ve used the unique characteristics of the medium for the benefit of all parties. Seems like a fair deal for all. But some don’t see it that way.

IDG is one of a bevy of publishers attempting to keep other sites from deep linking. Publications ranging from Belo’s Dallas Morning News to Rodale Press’ Runners World have recently attempted to restrict deep linking. While each case has nuances, the publishers claimed financial injury because others deep link to content, which limits the number of pages users see.

I suspect we can all agree with the notion that the creator of something should be the one to benefit from its economic value. It’s only fair.

But publishers can’t have it both ways. While most would like to diminish the possibility that others will profit from their investment in creating editorial, few would be willing to sacrifice the traffic delivered by other sites. Preventing search engines from indexing would be traffic suicide for most sites.

In addition, fairness has never had much to do with copyright law. As my colleague Chris Sherman pointed out in his piece “Deep Linking Lunacy” in Search Engine Watch, deep links are nothing more than URLs. URLs describe the location on the Web at which content resides. Therefore, URLs are facts. Facts are not copyrightable. This point alone should be enough to end the debate.

Some deep linkers go further than posting just links. They create headlines or abstracts describing the content that will be found if a user clicks on a link. Even this more liberal approach to deep linking is protected under Fair Use doctrine. Fair use limits copyright owners’ rights in order to promote the exchange of ideas for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research.

Business is still tough and I empathize with publishers who might be tempted to try to restrict the practice of deep linking. But deep linking is one of the Web’s unique qualities; restricting its use is neither practical nor defensible.

Chris Elwell is vice president and general manager of Jupitermedia Corp., the parent of this Web site.

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