The free-and-easy way in which Web sites link to other sites is about to come under heavy legal scrutiny.
Several of the nation's largest news organizations are threatening legal action against Total News, a month-old Web site that offers a one-stop-shop of links to other news-oriented sites.
CNN Interactive's attorneys have sent a letter to Total News, asking that it stop linking to CNN's site. Fox News, ABC and CBS all say their legal departments are considering taking action.
At the heart of the debate is whether Total News, a Phoenix, Ariz., joint venture between Grouper Technologies and Datapix, is wrongfully distributing copyrighted information via its site, and whether it should share its ad revenues with the sites it links to.
TESTING THE BOUNDARIES
It's a situation for which there is no legal precedent and which could test the boundaries of traditional copyright and fair competition law.
As first reported by trade publication Inside Media, the home page for Total News provides logo links to Web sites from CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CBS, USA Today, ABC, Time Daily and others.
Rather than linking a user out of the Total News Web site entirely, Total News uses frame technology to display content on its site. The frames divide the Web page into sections so the news content pops up in the middle and the outside portions of the frame don't change.
Total News sells ads at the bottom of its home page; marketers including AT&T Corp. and MasterCard International have bought in at a $35 cost per thousand.
Total News claims it does not alter the content of any site it links to; it merely presents it inside a frame. It also says it boosts traffic to other sites and provides an easy resource for Web users.
"We feel that we are no different from Yahoo!. The fact that we display it in a frame is the only difference," said Roman Godzich, president of Total News.
`NONE HAVE PROTESTED'
He added that his company sent letters to "several" news entities asking permission to create links. "None of them have given us permission, but none of them have protested," he said early last week.
"We do think it's a violation of our copyright and have referred it to counsel," said Harry Motro, senior VP-interactive at CNN. "We've invested a lot in our brand and content and logo, and it's our job to protect it."
Others are more blunt. "They're cannibals," said Scott Ehrlich, director of issues, information and online services at Fox News.
However, some say a link is valuable, no matter how it's presented.
"This provides more traffic to our site and gives our advertisers more exposures," said Allegra Young, marketing manager for USA Today Online.
Legal experts say that while what Total News does may look like copyright problems, it can also be argued that it is simply exploiting technology to do what everyone already does: offer links to related information.
AD REVENUES IN QUESTION
"By taking text and reproducing it within their own frame, they are reproducing that material on their own site, which is copyright infringement," said Linda Goldstein, partner in Hall, Dickler, Kent, Friedman & Wood, a New York law firm. But she adds that "there may be some technical argument that Total News could make that they are not literally copying material onto their own server."
Content owners also say they want a cut of ad revenues, because they believe Total News is benefiting financially from their work.
The scrutiny of Total News could call into question the linking practice of thousands of other sites.
NewsLinx, for example, offers text links to news stories about the Web. It sells ads for $5 to $7 per thousand impressions.
Another service, Wise Wire, from Empirical Media, will use frame technology to deliver personalized content starting early next year.
"All we're doing is telling the end user where information is, so they can go get it themselves," said Ken Lang, chairman-CEO of Empirical."
Copyright November 1996, Crain Communications Inc.