Aardvark and 7am send publishers scurrying for legal opinions
Copyright © 1996 to Bruce Simpson
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In the wake of an article in this week's Aardvark Weekly, publishers and broadcasters around the country have been rushing to their lawyers in an attempt to ascertain their rights over the control of access to content they may publish on the Net.

The 7am Weekly News page has already been the focus of complaints from TVNZ, and yesterday Independent Radio News contacted 7am with concerns over the use of its news headlines for commercial purposes.

Although agreeing that headlines probably couldn't be copyrighted, IRN remain confused over what constitutes "republishing" and appears, like so many traditional publishers, unfamiliar with the way the World Wide Web actually works.

Another area of concern for IRN was the fact that occasionally the headlines carried by 7am's News Ticker service were not matched to the stories on the relevant web site. 7am noted that this was caused at least in part because IRN were not updating the site in accordance with a previously described schedule, however 7am will work to resolve the issue in the best interests of all parties.

NBR's Richard Inder has also been investigating this story-line and will publish an article in this week's NBR. Legal opinions obtained independenly by Aardvark and and Inder only reinforce the assertion that neither URLs nor headlines are copyrightable.

Local and international copyright law experts appear to concur that URLs are not "creative works" and that the quoting of headlines represents "fair use" under existing copyright legislation.

An example of this is an opinion from Law Professor Charles Oppenheim of De Montfort University who says "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."

New Zealand is not alone in its conflicts between traditional publishers and those who understand and best use the power of the Net. In the UK a fierce battle is raging between a print-media publisher of long-standing and a new web-only startup publication called Shetland News.

In this case it appears that the Shetland News has to battle the ignorance of a parochial court system as well as that of "the old guard". This single case stands to create an extremely important precident so Net-users and the industry as a whole can only hope that it's not left to some techno-illiterate small-town judge to make a ruling which could effectively destroy the very fabric of the WWW in one fell swoop.

It is interesting to note that the National Union of Journalists in the UK has taken the side of the web-publisher, battling against the might of the print-media in this instance.

Of course it should be pointed out that although a number of NZ publishers and broadcasters have been consulting their lawyers, none have actually announced any intention to take concrete action at this point in time.

Hopefully common-sense will prevail and those who are having trouble coming to grips with the realities of the new technology will be prepared to discuss the potential benefits available to all parties rather than take a myopic and parochial view.

Certainly with respect to 7am's Weekday News, IRN seem very happy to talk about the prospects of gaining from the relationship - but they're still getting a legal opinion - "just in case".

Hopefully we won't see too many lawyers rushing to the dealer for the latest 1997 BMW brochures on the strength of these developments.

If publishers (particularly news publishers) think they have a chance of controlling the proliferation of links to their material, they should peruse the Aardvark list of News-link sites

Readers may also be interested in the argument that negligence weakens the publisher's case.

Of course it's often said that a problem is simply an opportunity in disguise... and never has this been more true than on the Internet. Look for a rather significant announcement of global import from an NZ organisation shortly which offers the potential to resolve the problems of linking between sites once and for good.

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