The Evils of Linking

One of the things I never thought about before taking on copyright duties at the college was the minefield of issues surrounding the issue of hyperlinking directly to specific content on the Internet (otherwise known as deep-linking).

In the latest news on this front (as discussed at Digital Copyright Canada) a Texas judge has found a web site operator, Robert Davis, liable for copyright infringement because his site linked to another site’s audio content. I know when I read this story my mind was full of stereotypical images of a judge wearing a ten-gallon hat, and making comments about the Internet being a series of tubes.

After reading the complete article it appears that if the defendant had actually hired a lawyer, the judge would have been made aware of previous cases and been clearly shown that this person was not copying or taking possession of this audio content in any way, he was simply providing access to the copyright owners’ content.

One of the main issues in this case was that the owners of the audio were streaming this content through a media player that they could sell ad-time on. Robert Davis was providing the direct link to the audio stream so people could listen to the audio in the audio player of their choice (thereby depriving them of their ad revenue).

While I am happy to put up with most advertising tied to on-line content if that is what it takes to make it freely available and allows the creators to continue to produce more content, I must admit I do the exact same thing with a local radio station’s on-line feed. They kept playing this annoyingly loud ad before the stream would start and when someone told me what the exact URL was to the audio feed I started using that and getting the programming immediately through the Windows Media Player.

At our school we work closely with the online course developers and educators to ensure that all material being placed online is being done in compliance with copright laws. Some ask about providing direct links to content on Youtube and other video sharing sites for their students to see. Since so much of this requested material is copyrighted content uploaded by individuals users (not the copyright holders) we advise them against doing this. There have been enough reports of people getting in trouble for doing this that I feel comfortable with our stance.

The more cloudy issue is the simple act of creating a URL directly to a page on another person’s web site. From all that I have read, one should feel they are not violating the law by creating a deep-link, as long as you clearly state that the link will take the user to another person’s web site and you do not imply that you in any way have ownership of the content on that site.

However, we came across another case of a teacher wanting to link to specific content on a company’s web site but when we checked the legal notices, they stated that you should not deep-link to their web site. Now I have no doubt that if we simply allowed them to put the deep-link up and this company found out about it, that there is no way we would be dragged in front of a judge. We were simply creating a direct path to content this company is making available on the World Wide Web. If they are so concerned about how people access this content they should put it behind a pay-wall or other lock-down mechanism.

While the debate over the future of copyright law in Canada continues between user-rights advocates and rights holders I sincerly hope that whatever form the new legislation takes, educational uses like the ones we try to facilitate will be clearly protected in law, whether this is through specific educational exemptions of through a shift from our concept of fair-dealing to a model closer to the U.S. one of fair-use.

January 29 Update

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