Nov 1996

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NUJ supports internet publisher against court threat to Web links

The World-Wide Web is illegal. The august Lord Hamilton said as much at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland on October 24. He granted the Shetland Times -- the weekly lumberjack-friendly newspaper of the treeless islands in the North Atlantic -- an interim interdict against the Shetland News -- the archipelago's upstart recycled-electrons-only news source.

Under His Lordship's interim injunction, the Web-based News cannot quote the Times's headlines, nor make links into the Times site. A full hearing is unlikely before early 1997. The News will defend itself vigorously, with the backing of the National Union of Journalists.

Since it started a year ago the News -- which boasts "readers in more than 55 countries" -- had carried a headlines page with its own stories, plus headlines from the Times site. These linked readers to the actual Times stories. News editor Dr Jonathan Wills told Wired magazine, "We trebled the Times site's readership. There were people reaching their pages from our site who couldn't get there from the Times' frames- based home page. We have reciprocal links with everyone from CNN to an Icelandic newspaper." His on-line statement refers to the Times action as "an unprecedented attempt to block free access to the Internet".

Indeed, commentators as far afield as Jim Thomson, librarian at University of California Riverside, say that "The Web as it exists now cannot survive if all linkers has to get written permission from the linkees... though it might seem like a good idea to a hidebound print publisher."

The Times clearly felt that the two-person News team was exploiting its reporters' hard work to make their site look better. Proprietor Robert Wishart says "despite the rubbish Wills has been spouting about restricting free access to the internet, censorship and such like this is a simple question of whether or not his activities amount to an infringement of our copyright."

Professor Charles Oppenheim of De Montfort University notes that "A URL is simply a fact, in which there is no copyright. And it's hard to justify copyright in something as short as a headline; even if you tried, there's a defence of fair dealing... for the reporting of current events."

Jonathan Wills used to edit the Shetland Times, until he was sacked and won a substantial amount for unfair dismissal. It would be deeply ironic if this spat in the old-technology were to cripple the new.

We think we've already sent nice emails to all our linkees, just in case...

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