Issue #36
25 November 1996
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Aardvark

Edition #36

THERE'S A STORM A BREWING!
A warning... don't link directly to pages within TVNZ's web site or use their logos on your own pages without prior authorisation. TVNZ seem to be very protective of their web-site content - to the point of raising veiled threats about "copyright infringements" and "taking action" should anyone link to them in a manner which, in their words, "corrupt our site branding and advertising which may accompany our content".

It appears also that TVNZ are "not best pleased" with ClearNet's unauthorised use of the TV One and TV Two logo's and when 7am linked to their sports-news pages last week, sending a courtesy email to advise them, a curt reply was received which made it quite clear that linking to any part of the TVNZ site (other than a main page) was not allowed.

In a telephone conversation with John Wooding, it was made quite clear for instance that although their sports-news pages were quite clearly branded with the "One Network News" graphic, linking directly to them was "unacceptable".

I really wonder if TVNZ understand what the Internet is about and how it works. Perhaps a TV station can survive as an isolated island on the electromagnetic ether - but the whole paradigm on which the net is based is freedom of information-flow, which often means linking directly to relevant pages rather than a site's front-door. Being an island unto one's self is a recipe for failure on the Web!

By way of comparison, when I contacted CNN to get their views on such linking they were more than happy to have anyone link directly to their pages. Of course they have been smart enough to design a site which is not only ergonomic in terms of graphics and layout, but also capable of preserving their "branding" regardless of where the links may fall. Perhaps TVNZ should compare the ROI they are experiencing from their own web site with those made by CNN, one of the very few sites on the Web that actually turns a profit - and a very significant one at that.

Most sites would not mind linking to another site in such a way as to preserve the maximum level of advertiser exposure and branding but TVNZ have designed their site "all wrong" for that type of linking. In fact, a further indicator that TVNZ is really driving blind in this medium is their recent web-site redesign. Their design has a number of questionable elements:

  • Frames are manditory in some places - using an older browser or don't like frames? - too bad, we don't think you're important enough to spend the extra time to cater for you!
  • The Meta-refresh used on some pages as a "poor-man's" method of implementing revolving banners means that if you spend more than a few seconds on a page, the BACK button on your browser won't work in the way you might expect.
  • The Regional TV link on their "intermittently updated" US mirror site is broken - it simply takes you back to the front page.
  • Some pages can't be used without loading 50K+ of graphics, seems they can't be bothered spending 5 minutes to add a simple text sub-menu.
  • The "what's on today" sections of the US mirror are three days out of date!
I could go on - but I normally charge a significant amount for a web-site audit and analysis :-) Suffice to say TVNZ need a little help with their implementation and a whole lot more with their attitudes. (Note: I would have linked to the pages mentioned above - but prefer not to "risk it").

Now (at last I get something nice to say about Xtra), by comparison, 7am's news page includes links to Xtra's IRN news pages (amongst others) and Xtra has had no problem in realising the benefits that this offers to themselves and their advertisers. Likewise, NBR, are more than happy to give their advertisers the added exposure that comes from the 7am links - although I hasten to point out that anyone thinking of linking directly to NBR content should certainly seek permission to do so. In fact, it's a good idea to get permission from any site you plan to link to, both as a courtesy and so that you can ensure a harmonious relationship with the operators of such sites. Regardless of the legalities, it's always a good idea to build a friendly working relationship with any sites you might link to.

The TVNZ situation brings to a head the very important, and as yet unresolved situation regarding the ethics and legality of linking to other sites on the Web.

The biggest problems seem to come from organisations which are "new" to the net and which have their background in alternative media. They consider a link to be "republishing without permission" and therefore a breach of copyright. But is this the way the courts would see it?

Over the weekend I obtained several "opinions" from US copyright lawyers on the Web. Universally they agreed that (under US law - which in the area of copyright is very similar to our own), linking to another site's publicly accessible content almost certainly does not constitute any breach of copyright.

I prefer to draw this analogy: The local suburban newspaper is given freely to anyone who wants it (just like visiting a web page). It has content which is copyright to the publishers (just like a web page). If I take that content and reprint it in my own newspaper then I am breaking the law. But... what if I take that free copy of the newspaper and show it to a friend? What if I say "hey, look at this?" Is that a breach of copyright? I don't think so.

Perhaps they'll argue that it's being "taken out of context" and therefore an unauthorised alteration to a published and copyrighted work. Again... the analogy would be cutting an article out of the newspaper and showing it to a friend - is that a crime? A breach of copyright?

When an organisation publishes material on the internet and that material is made freely available to any Net user who wants to tune their browser to that URL then it's like one of those free giveaway publications. If someone were to grab the text from that page and place it in their own publicly accessible page then they'd be breaching copyright. When they put a link to the original page however, they are doing exactly the same thing as ringing up a friend and saying "Hey did you read that story in the local rag - it's on page 4, 3rd column, down the bottom".

So long as the page containing the link does not attempt to perform "dirty tricks" such as surrounding the linked-to page with its own advertising or such-like then I don't see how carrying links to other sites can be a copyright infringement - do we have a lawyer out there who can see a reason why it might?

The only possible way such a link could infringe copyright would be if they claimed that you had reproduced their URL without permission, but then one could argue that since it's an address just like a street number or post-office box then it's not copyrightable anyway. Alternatively you could use the IP number - I don't think small numbers are copyrightable - someone correct me if I'm wrong.

Another argument against that premise might be that here in NZ, registering a domain name does not give you "ownership" of that name so you have no right to stop anyone else from publishing a URL containing any domain name.

So... given the lack of any more authoritative rules or legal precidents I've designed the Aardvark rules of linking etiquette:

  1. Always give linked sites the entire browser window (do not put the linked page in a subframe).
  2. Always link in such a way that you preserve the presence of any advertising which may exist on the target site (although some sites make this very hard due to their own use of frames).
  3. Always ask permission or send a courtesy note advising the site that you are linking. It helps to point out (in the case of a site which carries advertising) that you're doing them a favour by increasing the effectiveness of their advertiser's message.
  4. Do make sure that your links to other sites are kept up to date, don't let your own tardiness reflect badly on the site you link to.
  5. If you have a site that others may link to - design it so that you can get the maximum benefit from those links, eg: provide a no-frames version to ensure that your menus and advertisements are going to get exposure, and add a note inviting linking sites to advise you of their links so that you can let them know if the structure of your site changes, etc). I'm hoping that these guidelines will (if anyone actually bothers to adopt them as a working code) ensure that everyone benefits from the basic concept on which the WWW has been built - hypertext linking!

    Any information provider that thinks they can "go it alone" in this industry is doomed to failure. The Net is not like a radio station, TV channel, newspaper or magazine and those who attempt to structure their sites so as to operate in isolation from the rest of the Web will suffer the consequences.

    Given the mindsets that I've encountered from some organisations, I know it won't be long before a legal battle ensues between those who blunder blindly into the realm of Net publishing, fiercely trying to impose their own outdated model on the rest of us, and those who are smart enough to realise that a link from another site is really a valuable path bringing people to your wares.

    I think it's time that those "new to the Net" realised that they can't change the paradigm on which the Web is based simply because it doesn't suit their own ideas of "what's right". Better that they follow the lead of others who have a proven track-record of success (such as CNN) and learn to accept that this is the way things work. If you want to use it to your advantage - design your site around the fact that other sites will link directly to pages within your own site's structure.

    Latest Updates on this story...

    footnote: I wonder if TVNZ and their ilk are planning to "take action" against Alta Vista which carries over 20 pages of links to pages within TVNZ's site, SearchNZ which carries hundreds of links and reproduces the TVNZ logos on their preview pages, Voyager's new Anzwers engine which turns up 627 references, plus the literally hundreds of other web pages carrying links to the individual components of this site.

    MORE GOOD NEWS FOR XTRA USERS
    Sometimes I cop flack for appearing to be "anti-Xtra". "Not True!" I say. When there's something positive to report - I'll report it and here's the proof!...

    It appears that finally, Xtra have wound down the marketing and PR machines and channeled a little resource into the area that needed it most - operations. Suddenly (and quietly) the online billing information seems to be working again.

    Other users have reported that some of the alt.binaries newsgroups have returned - albeit (I suspect) without the ones containing "sex", "erotica", "rude-body-parts" or other potentially contentious content.

    I almost thought the "Change your password" was available again also - but when I went to use it I received a rude error message. Naturally I rang the help desk (and this is where the good-news starts to fade) - only to get that endless loop of: "We are unable to connect you to our support line at present as all of our representitives are busy with customers. Please try again later" - which appears to be PR-speak for "thank you for calling the optimist's help line - both of our operators are struggling vainly to answer calls - we suggest you our 0900 Tarrot-line, at least they may be able to tell you the odds of actually getting through in this lifetime".

    Is there really a helpdesk at Xtra? I don't know - I tried so many times over the weekend that my phone started dialing the number automatically everytime I picked up the receiver, but I never did get through. At least as an access provider, SineSurf are honest about, and make a feature of their deliberately low levels of user support allowing skilled users benefit from this by way of lower prices.

    Aside from the help-desk problems ... a hearty "good on you Xtra" for finally waking up to the importance of addressing on the needs of the customers you already have - ahead of recruiting new ones.

    There... I told you I could be positive!

    AND SPEAKING OF SUPPORT..
    One web site I've been working on for a client has been suffering from the most perplexing of problems - seemingly defying logic and for all the world appearing to be related to a DNS or network error. In an incredible contrast with Xtra's helpline, the guys from Actrix spent a not inconsiderable amount of time working with me over the weekend to try and resolve the problem.

    Turns out that it wasn't a problem with the network or anything to do with Actrix but a very subtle problem with Netscape. A public "thank you" to the Actrix team for placing the customer first and continuing to provide levels of service which are certainly more the exception than the rule in this industry. It's not often that I hand out bouquets but sometimes you've just got to acknowledge when a company has the kind of attitude that deserves positive recognition.

    UNSOLICITED COMMERCIAL EMAIL - A FOLLOWUP
    I've received a number of comments from people asking about my nojunkmail@faxmail.co.nz address.

    There have been NO negative responses and nobody has had any problems following the simple instructions in my SIG. What has happened is that the amount of junk email I've been getting has dropped by almost half - in the period of a week. At this stage I'm hesitantly saying that this technique might just provide the relief I was looking for. I'm sure that there's plenty of scope for someone to "commercialise" a service such as this if it turns out to be a viable medium to long-term solution.

    A LITTLE CHANGE
    The observant amongst you will have noticed that this week's Aardvark looks a little different. I've removed the background graphic because some people have been having trouble reading the text. For some reason, a very few browser/video-card combinations were displaying a completely grey background which produced a very low contrast with the black text. Now, if you've got MSIE3 or NS3 you'll still get the grey strip while users of older browsers will have a totally white background.

    RIGHT OF REPLY
    Nothing this week

    FROM THE "I CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S TRUE" DEPARTMENT:

    Observations from the Clear Home and Small Office Computer Show....

    A long-legged girl in a miniskirt (or maybe it was just a wide belt) walked up to me and handed me a piece of paper on which were printed the words "I hug" - I was about to fall to my knees to give a prayer of thanks... until I realised it was just a brochure for a flat-rate ISP - damn!

    At PC Pete's stand they were proudly advertising a "show special" for HP 690C inkjet printers at $549+GST. They couldn't figure out why sales were so slow - the neigbouring stand was specialing the same printer for $499+GST

    Xtra were giving away free drink coasters to anyone who wasn't fast enough to get out of the way. They're very decorative, if you turn them shiny-side up. I especially like the way they've made them look just like a CD-ROM.

    I really can't believe it's true that people are prepared to pay $7 to get into a show where you instantly become fodder for hundreds of hyped-up sales-geeks touting stuff you probably don't really need and almost certainly can't afford.

    So You Don't Forget!
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    The entire contents of this publication are copyright 1996 to Bruce Simpson, all rights reserved. Don't copy it without my permission - just ask, I'm unlikely to refuse any reasonable request.


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