Sean Peck used to grind away as a software engineer for the popular search site Lycos before he got the Internet entrepreneurial bug and started News Index, a little-known online news search engine.
But just as Peck was getting ready to test the commercial potential of his two-year-old labor of love, he says on Friday he got a threatening legal notice from The Times of London telling him to stop featuring its stories--or else. The 200-year-old newspaper claims Peck is infringing on its copyright by linking to The Times's headlines and temporarily storing abstracts of its copy in the News Index database.
Peck is baffled by the situation. He says he investigated copyright law before building the site, and believes he is in the clear. "We're doing what any other search engine is doing," he said. "If it is proved that we're violating their copyright, that would mean that every search engine on the Net would be violating copyright law."
In an email interview today, Dominic Young, copyright manager for News International Newspapers, which owns the newspaper, said that along with summaries of its stories, News Index appears to be indexing a "substantial proportion" of its site, which "is an infringement of copyright and not permitted by English fair dealing rules."
"One of our main objections is that links from News Index bypass our registration process," he added. "We want to ensure that users enter our site via the main front page so that the presentation of our material is the one we have constructed, not the one someone else's search engine has constructed."
News Index's predicament is one other small news aggregation sites have faced before. And like past cases, if News Index is ultimately sued, the outcome of the case could determine once and for all whether online news headlines are bound by copyright law, thus requiring publishers to get permission before linking to others' Web content. Legal experts say the dispute also stirs up a murky issue facing all full-text search engines: many capture full or partial copies of Web sites in their databases, which could be a violation of copyright as well.
The commercialization of the Net has brought with it a new string of copyright questions. So far the potential test cases have been settled out of court, or have involved small online start-ups that bowed to the pressure of big-time copyright holders.
Last month, the Shetland Times newspaper settled its lawsuit against the Shetland News for linking to its online headlines about the latest happenings on an island off the coast of Scotland. The News now can link to the Sheltand Times's headlines as long as it runs the paper's logo next to featured stories.
And this summer, the Web site TotalNews also reached an agreement with a group of well-known media companies that sued it for displaying their news stories within a frame on the TotalNews site. The Washington Post, Times Mirror, Time Warner, CNN, Dow Jones, and Reuters New Media agreed to a "linking license" with TotalNews so that it could hyperlink to their stories.
On the sidelines, world leaders also are grappling with how existing copyright laws apply to digital copies of music, literature, and software, with the latest legislation coming down from the European Commission yesterday. The proposals implement parts of two international treaties singed last year in Geneva, which U.S. lawmakers also are trying to ratify. (See related story)
In addition to linking to sources of major news stories, News Index has a key word search engine that scours about 200 sites. The first paragraph of stories News Index links to also are posted on the site, and therefore are stored in its database for about 24 hours.
Other sites offer similar services, but often only link to headlines. Like News Index, NewsHub uses an automated "spider" to comb the Web for news stories, which are linked by time stamp on its site. So far, the one-year-old NewsHub, which started placing paid ads on its site a month ago, has never been accused of copyright violation.
"For the most part we try to work with the publications. If someone says we can't link to them, they can take action such as blocking our spider," said Tom McDonald, president of VPOP Web Services, which created NewsHub.
"We're thinking about [adding the story summaries], but because we don?t want to play with fire, we'd probably ask permission from the sites," he added.
Publishing a sentence from a copyrighted news story without permission may not be what got News Index into this scrape, legal experts say. "In the United States, reproducing a headline is most likely not an infringement. Taking a piece of the article and putting it on a Web site would likely be considered 'fair use,'" said Eric Schlachter, an attorney with Cooly Godward who specializes in Internet-related cases.
Based on past court rulings, however, News Index could be found guilty of a what is known as a "misappropriation of hot news."
"If I get everything I need to know from the summary of the news article they are providing, then News Index could be free-riding on the effort of the originator of the story," Schlachter added.
That could be how the wrangling pans out. Like any fledgling enterprise, News Index hopes to address the Times's concerns before he is hit with a legal battle.
"For me to back down now would be saying that I was violating the law--and I'm not," Peck said. "But we don't have a huge bankroll to say, 'Hey, take us to court.'"
The Times also would like to avoid a court fight, but says it has the ammunition to go all the way. "I want to stress that we don't want to go down the legal route, but actually we do feel that our objections have a pretty strong foundation in the law," Young said. "We simply want Mr. Peck to agree to withdraw our material from his Web site while it continues to operate in the manner it does."