Digital feud rages in Scotland

A Scottish court case, which has intrigued the Net community, may decide if unauthorized hyperlinks are illegal and whether headlines are bound by copyright law.

3 min read
When Scotland publisher Jonathan Wills linked to headlines from the only other paper in town, he thought the extra traffic to the Web site would be appreciated. But thanks he did not get. He got sued.

The Shetland Times, for long the only news provider on the small island north of Scotland (population 23,000), filed the suit against Wills for breach of copyright. The case is expected to be heard by Scotland's Supreme Civil Court by January.

In the meantime, Wills's digital publication The Shetland News, which boasts 4,500 readers per day, is barred from hyperlinking to his neighbor's site according to a judge's ruling in October.

The legal challenge has intrigued the Net community. The Scotland court will have to decide if unauthorized links are illegal and ponder whether headlines are bound by copyright law.

Even more interesting is the history of the publisher's relationship, which makes the case appear to be less of a copyright struggle than a playground squabble.

The publisher and editor of the Times, Robert Wishart, gave Wills his first job reporting for the weekly publication. Then in 1990, the two had a bitter split, according to Wills, and he was fired by Wishart.

Years later when Wills launched his daily Internet newspaper featuring Shetland and world news, he thought nothing of linking to the Times site four months after the launch of his site. In his mind, although the publications shared the same small island, they do not share an audience.

"There is no competition between a weekly local newspaper about Shetland for Shetland, and a daily that is writing about Shetland for a global audience. They're complementary products," Wills said. "If he was a rival, I wouldn't have given him free advertising."

Wishart couldn't be reached for comment, but has argued that Wills's link to his headlines was in effect stealing the work of Times' reporters. Linking to the stories was just like reprinting copyrighted print stories without permission, he maintained.

If the Scotland court rules in favor of Wishart and international courts follow their lead, Wills and Net prophets fear that people all over the world will be forced to rip down unauthorized links. This would go against the nature of the Internet in which sites consistently point to other sites, competitors or not, to enhance content.

However, one American cyberights group is not concerned about the Scotland case's implications. Shari Steele, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the Times' request seems fair.

"For example, EFF wouldn't want to be required to link to any other site. On that same note, the notion of who links to your site should also be your own decision," she said.

Wills claims he has spent $3,000 in legal fees to fight the case and has lost $7,000 in "wages" for time spent fighting the charges. But whether the origin of case is really a personality conflict between the publishers, Wills believes the suit is an example of a print publisher who doesn't understand the ways of the Net.

"It's not a breach of copyright," he said. "I didn't copy anything except about a dozen headlines and I did that to use those headlines as sign posts to guide my readers to his Web site. I gained nothing from it."