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Scottish link suit settled

The case the Internet community thought would set a precedent about whether news headlines are bound by copyright law is settled out of court.

3 min read
With a small island off the north coast of Scotland as a backdrop, two old friends turned enemies over Web site links have finally settled a long, drawn-out copyright lawsuit.

About a year ago, the Shetland Times newspaper and online site filed a lawsuit against the digitally produced Shetland News for linking to the Times' online headlines about the latest happenings on the island of 23,000 people. The Times publisher and editor, Robert Wishart, asked Scotland's Supreme Civil Court to ban the Shetland News from linking to his site.

The legal challenge was closely watched by many in the Net community as the Scottish court set out to decide whether news headlines are bound by copyright law, thus requiring online publishers to get permission before linking to others' Web content.

Before a judge could decide the case, the two publishers settled their squabble today. According to Shetland News publisher Jonathan Wills, the settlement was struck when the hearing was stalled for four hours while technical experts tried to hook up a live Net connection for the courtroom.

Under the deal, the Shetland News was granted permission to link to the Times' headlines, but must label individual articles as "A Shetland Times Story." Near such stories, the Shetland News also promised to feature a button with the Times' masthead logo that links to the newspaper's home page. The parties agreed to pay their own legal fees, according to the release sent out by Wills today.

"I'm very pleased that after 13 months we've managed to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides. I think the terms of the settlement speak for themselves and I look forward to returning to normal business," Wills said in the statement. "I don't want to comment further as perhaps we've all said enough over the past year."

The agreement marks the end of a heated and personal battle between the two men, who share an extensive personal history. Wishart gave Wills his first job reporting for the weekly publication. Then, in 1990, the two had a bitter argument, according to Wills, and he was fired by Wishart. Years later Wills launched his daily Internet newspaper, and four months after that the lawsuit erupted.

The case was derailed before the Scottish court could set a precedent as to whether Net links can be copyrighted. U.S. companies have wrangled over similar issues, but not all have settled out of court.

In June, the Web site TotalNews reached a settlement 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.

In another case that has yet to be decided, Ticketmaster filed a lawsuit against Microsoft Sidewalk in April alleging that Microsoft illegally used the Ticketmaster name and trademark by providing links to its site. The outcome of this case could change once and for all the nature of the Net by making it illegal to link between commercial sites without permission.