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Internet Links Could Take a Hit in Scottish Feud

The court's decision may set an international precedent on pointers to Web pages

By David H. Rothman / December 3, 1996



The Wisharts are the Citizen Kanes of the Shetland Islands, the windy isles 103 miles north of the Scottish mainland.

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Almost every adult among the 23,000 Shetlanders reads the family's newspaper. For good measure, the Wisharts also publish a monthly magazine, local histories and poetry, and a shelf full of other books on topics ranging from trout fishing to the inevitable ponies and knitwear.

Now, with Kane-like determination, the Wisharts are feuding with an ex-editor of theirs - Jonathan Wills, a bright, uppity PhD who has worked for the BBC and The Times of London.

Scotland's highest court is to rule in the next few months on the legality of unauthorized links that Mr. Wills's electronic newspaper made to the Internet edition of the Wisharts' Shetland Times. The wrong outcome could do billions of dollars in damage to future business on the Web.

"This decision will set an international precedent regarding the ability to create pointers to business Web pages without explicit permission to do so," says Dan L. Burke, an internationally recognized expert on Internet copyright.

These links are how Netfolks scoot from one World Wide Web site to another. They click their mice on a word highlighted in a different color from surrounding text, or on an image associated with the other site. Links don't copy material. They merely point you in the right direction, just like a phone book or library catalog.

There's a better way

I run Web areas with scads of links to and from others as far off as Australia, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Let the whole cosmos read my political writings or the ads that I'll soon run on my real estate page. And if I felt otherwise? A password system could limit my readership. Or I could rig my Web site to make the links within it keep changing constantly, so that other people's areas couldn't point to individual items without permission. Who needs lawyers when technology can do the job?

If the Wisharts win in Scotland's Court of Session, however, and if our own courts eventually rule the same way, then people like me may have to rip out zillions of impromptu links rather than mess with onerous legalities. What's more, sites like the popular Yahoo index might be virtually useless if links typically needed permission.

So how come the Citizen Wisharts are willing to risk wreaking havoc on Netfolks, while the gutsy Wills defends linking? One need only tour the Web sites of Wills's Shetland News and the Wisharts' Times to see why.

The News site, "Britain's first local daily paper on the Internet," exemplifies the Net as a nirvana for the cash-strapped but talented. Graeme Storey, a photographer friend of Wills, came up with the idea. The two were on a boat in "half a gale," having chased a dud of a news story, and both felt surly. Storey challenged Wills to go online with what is now the News. The idea clicked. Thousands of honorary expatriates had put in military or corporate service on the islands.

"At least 4,500 people are regularly reading us every day in more than 55 countries," Wills says. And, not surprisingly, the News sparkles with colorful ads from such companies as P&O Scottish Ferries and the Shetland Knitwear Association. His paper runs not just routine news stories but spry and wry commentary.

Clearly, this longtime Shetland resident sees his work as a mission rather than a mere vocation, and, judging from his fan mail, readers share his enthusiasms.

"Now I have a chance to once again return to your beautiful islands," wrote a former Coast Guardsman from Rome, N.Y. "It is not quite the same as being there, but through the Internet, your newspaper articles and pictures have again made that connection to my heart. I am forever grateful."

Ads and identifications

The News offers helpful links to put people at ease on the Net. While it did send readers to individual stories within the electronic edition of the Shetland Times -- until a judge restrained it, pending a decision -- Wills says he was careful to identify material from the Times's reporters. I wish the identifications had been more noticeable. But, on the basis of a sample page I saw, they were there; besides, the Times could slap its masthead on its own pages and put ads there, too.

The News also offered -- and still does -- links to CNN's Net site and other prominent ones on the Net.

Between the well-chosen links and hundreds of pages of original material, the News was hardly just a repackaged Times. When the judicial order came, the links to the Times had been in place for all of two weeks or so.

Contrast the News site (http://www.shetland-news.co.uk/) to the catch-up site that the Times (http://www.shetland-times.co. uk/) started three months after the News hit the Net. Wills and Storey are hardly making a mint off ads, but have enjoyed far more advertising in cyberspace than the Times has.

I'm not surprised. Too much of the writing on the Times site is J-school formulaic. Even more striking, however, is the scarcity of conspicuous links to sites elsewhere on the Net. It's as if, not content to be on an island in real life, the Shetland Times wants to be an island in cyberspace. That may be fine for the Wisharts, but not for mainlanders like me.

David H. Rothman, a writer in Alexandria, Va., is most recently author of "NetWorld!: What People Are Really Doing on the Internet and What It Means to You" (Prima).