Johndan Johnson-Eilola
Thu, 30 Aug 2001 14:53:34 -0400

[Geraldine asked]

> Quick question - if I want to put links to other websites onto our site is
> it good practice to ask the other website first.  e.g. other organisations
> that aren't GCVS members but useful site for members to look at.

[This ended up being a much longer response than I intended; apologies. I'm
not a legal scholar, but I've been active on intellectual property on the
web issues for five or six years, so I've put some thought into this. The
short answer is, no. But it quickly gets more complicated.]

I'm adamantly opposed to this unless there seems to be some clear ethical,
personal, or legal reason to do so. I'm *not* saying that you *never* ask
permission, or that you never *tell* someone, only that you don't
automatically feel required to ask permission.

This probably seems like an odd set of hairs to split, but here's my
thinking. First, large media conglomerates (Microsoft, Disney, McDonalds,
InfoWorld) are tending to control their "intellectual property" voraciously.

On one hand, I agree that authors (or their representative companies) should
have a *certain* amount of control over the media they create. (I'm an
author of print texts and profit from the fact that photocopying my work
isn't widely acceptable--it happens, surely, but for the most part I get
money when people buy my obscure little books.) On the other hand, there's a
huge gap, both philosophical and legal, with the historical foundations of
IP that separate "talking about" someone's work from "appropriating their
work unfairly". If I'm prevented from linking to InfoWorld's website without
first seeking permission (as InfoWorld briefly claimed last year), in effect
InfoWorld is preventing me from providing readers of my critique of <a
href="">InfoWorld</a> directly to their site.

I would also distinguish just plain linking from hazier issues like
deep-linking, in which the originating site sometimes provides link to a
competitor's site that fool users into thiking they're still reading content
on the original site. And this is even a little diferent than deep links
that bypass higher-level advertising the destination site relies on for
profit. (The answer to the former issue is a fraud charge; the answer to the
later is using a database to serve pages and redirect incoming links to a
top level, or something similar.)

The purely ethical issue is, in at least this instance, somewhat easier to
deal with: is your link going to cause undue problems for the destination
site? For example, if I'm a high-traffic site (in my dreams), any link I
offer to my users may be enough to swamp a site on a server with a small
pipe. Or if I'm being critical of another site, I feel that I owe them a
professional obligation to inform them of my link (and my criticism), just
in case my comments are way off base.

- Johndan Johnson-Eilola
  Clarkson University