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A Swedish Court Learns a Lesson About Hyperlink Copyrights (and We Learn 4 Important Lessons About Content)
Posted on March 9th 2014
Hyperlinks are easily one of the most important tools on the Internet. Linking to credible sites that back your site up may give your words a little more heft in the eyes of readers. Getting linked to by a legitimate website is a great way to get new viewers (and if that site is a business you look up to then you might get a little ego massage).
For users hyperlinks are even more important. They are the basis of search engines. Without search engines the Internet simply comes to a halt. We’d even venture a guess and say that most of the people reading this right now found this blog post from a hyperlink, not by typing in the website.
Not only are hyperlinks indisputably important, many people (users especially) consider them innocuous. Most people don’t even consider them as possible copyright infringements.
“Wait, wait…” we hear some of you saying, “Did you just say hyperlinks are ‘possible copyright infringement’?” Yes we did. For those of you who haven’t heard, there have been cases going back to the late 90s about whether or not hyperlinking was considered copyright infringement and, depending on the type of use, some of them were ruled one way, some the other way.
There are Types of Hyperlinks?
Indeed there are. It’s not just underlined text that you click on. The types of hyperlinks are defined largely by the things the users can’t see. Regular links, like this one that links back to our home page, has been protected repeatedly. Honestly, most of the time regular links do not come under question at all. Most of the disputes you’ll see in courts are regarding deep linking or inline linking.
Deep linking links into the site somewhere. The main difference between the two (because neither search engine rankings or HTTP sees it as any different) is that it’s avoiding a lot of the site that you may not care about. Rather than forcing the user to go through the home page and search through the site, you can just link them directly to what they were searching for in the first place. It’s the difference between taking the subway from one building to another building versus driving through the city yourself.
Copyright Laws and Linking
Deep linking is a huge deal to some businesses for a few reasons. One of the main qualms that companies have with deep linking is that it can bypass advertisers and some sites even consider it a trespass (as if you were breaking and entering into someone’s house). In Ticketmaster v. Microsoft a judge ruled that Microsoft’s site Tickets.com did not infringe upon any copyrights when deep linking into the Ticketmaster website and that bringing users to relevant content was more useful than harmful.
On the other hand, in eBay v. Bidder’s Edge, Inc. it was argued that Bidder’s Edge’s (which is a weird possessive noun to type, by the way) deep linking to eBay was actually detrimental to eBay, according to Linuxinsider.com. Have you ever seen a celebrity get hounded by reporters and paparazzi after a scandal? They hop in the back of their car and it gets swarmed by photographers and microphones to the point where they have a hard time moving? That’s what Bidder’s Edge did to eBay, but with search bots instead of paparazzi. The court ruled that, in this case, the hyperlinks were actually a detriment to eBay and slowing them down. Just think, if they had used a captcha then the entire case may have been completely different. These two cases essentially set the precedent that hyperlinks could be used with impunity as long as it didn’t directly hurt the site (even if the link bypassed some possible advertising revenue).
There are a few cases related to inline linking, but the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier, end-all-be-all, case which all other inline linking cases will be brought back to is Perfect 10, Inc. v. Amazon.com, Inc. Contrary to the idea that the name of the case might give you, Amazon doesn’t matter in this discussion. What matters is another company that Perfect 10 was trying to sue in the same case: Google. The court ruled that Google’s inline linking to their images was not an infringement of hyperlinks copyright because a copy of the image was not made and stored on Google’s servers (whereas when Google does cache a page then sites have the right to have it removed by contacting Google). The court basically set the line where the FBI warning at the beginning of movies does. It’s fine to watch a DVD with a friend but it’s a crime to copy the DVD and give it to your friend.
The European Union’s Decision
Recently the European Union decided on a case originating in Sweden regarding whether or not hyperlinks infringe on copyrights. This case is slightly different than any American case due to the way the laws work in the EU. In the EU the rights holders and producers have exclusive rights on how their works are made public.
The case originated when a site called Retriever Sverige (an aggregator site like Google News or the Flipboard app) began linking to published articles on the Göteborgs-Posten website in a way that may have implied that the content was that of Retriever Sverige. This caused two questions to be raised:
- Does hyperlinking constitute communication with the public?
- Can a site link even if there may be confusion about who is providing the content?
The EU ruled that hyperlinks can be used without permission and in any way that the linker desires without the permission of the linked site. The only exceptions to this rule was if either the linker charged for the linked site’s free content or if the hyperlinks circumvented a pay site’s registration (although they could link to a place that redirected to a registration page).
Lessons to Learn About Content Production
1. Use Your Own Content
Hyperlinking and referencing are, in the vast majority of cases, not going to be a problem but the best way to avoid it altogether is to have people link to your top-quality, authoritative content rather than you having to link out to anyone else.
This doesn’t just mean that you’re wording other articles in a different way either. After all, you don’t want a Vanilla Ice vs. Queen/David Bowie situation on your hands. Be sure that when you’re making your blog posts or web content that you’re providing your own spin or analysis because people go to sites for original web content and according to Kissmetrics.com, repetitive content will hurt your rankings. And, even worse, if you’re just using a competitor’s ideas then your potential customers will wonder why they’re not just going to the company with the real ideas.
2. Content Farms Are Bad
While you want to avoid plagiarizing other companies it’s important to make sure that your site is worth plagiarizing. If you look at your site at the end of the day and think, “If this wasn’t my site, and I was an unsavory rapscallion, I would be tempted to steal this content” then you’ve done something right.
Content farms are a vaguely defined concept but it’s best to do all that you can to avoid being called one. They are full of original content that has absolutely no substance or quality control whatsoever. You may be thinking to yourself that sites like YouTube can be, in a way, considered a content farm due to the fact that it lets anyone upload videos and content without much restriction.
While it’s true and YouTube does allow anyone to upload at any time there is quality control at play. There is a view counter (that is analyzed at 301 views to determine if the views are legitimate), ranking systems, and a host of other ways that they subdue useless content, promote quality content, and have directed content based on related views. They also have a habit of promoting fresh content rather than allowing any content to be promoted at any given time. This allows for a very democratic content farm where people with interesting ideas or presentations can succeed while people who are simply recycling content are usually blocked from getting too far.
As many updates to Google algorithms have been aimed (implicitly) at content farms there seems to be little or no reason to make one at all anymore. In fact, penalized content farms can hurt other businesses by making a legitimate site become associated with penalized sites.
3. How to Use Links
Because hyperlinking can be subject to costly, and just painful, litigation processes it’s important to know how hyperlinks can work for you and how they will get either hit with PageRank penalties or get hit with complaints from other sites.
The Good – Good hyperlinks to and from your site count as votes for PageRank algorithms and are essentially rewards for quality original content. They are a good pat on the back but they will also allow you to quickly gain more visitors without having to resort to shady, or copyright infringing, tactics.
Legitimate hyperlinks, in and out, can also be helpful because they can help readers and search engines be able to categorize your site. Without this help you may just be lost in the shuffle of random, uncategorized sites, which won’t help your links at all. Although linking excessively or irresponsibly may be considered bad form and may incur penalties, it likely won’t be seen as illegal.
The Bad – Let’s talk about link farming. Unlike content farming, link farming is a fairly well defined idea. Essentially, it is when a company buys up several domain names and puts up fake “content” to provide links to their central site. Although this isn’t illegal it will easily get hit with penalties for low quality content and fake links.
4. “Free” Linked Content Costs You Control
If you’re looking for ways to have content with very little work then you’re out of luck. And if you think that simply linking to other sites is a free way to get rankings then you’ve never heard the phrase “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Providing quality original web content to your visitors will allow you to set your own pace and create serial content that will keep visitors coming back for more. If you just grab links then you have no control over the quality of the content or how it is distributed. And having all kinds of articles from disparate sources from across the Internet may become confusing and make you seem unreliable.
Quality content is the food of your website. It fuels you. And if you cook it just right you may have the best steak and lobster meal in the world. If you’re just grasping around the Internet then you’ll just end up with jelly beans and broccoli stuffed in a duck. In other words, you’ll have an incongruous mess on your hands.
Another aspect of your site that you lose control over is the all important call to action, according to Rightmixmarketing.com. Sure there’s a call to action but it’s not for you, it’s for someone else. And it’s quite likely that the point of your site isn’t to advertise for other companies so you may as well have your own call to action. You’re not a billboard, don’t act like one.
The How-To Guide to Original Content
If we’ve convinced you that original content is better than shamelessly hyperlinking around the Internet and risking (sometimes) frivolous lawsuits then that’s great. But now you have another problem: how do you create original content? Lucky for you there are plenty of ways to go it alone and have others do it for you. In the latter case, just remember that you get what you pay for and if you’re outsourcing to other countries to write content (even English speaking countries) you may find that you have some serious editing to do to fit it into your regional dialect and make it sound natural for your market.
Rewrite the Site
They call them “fixer-uppers” for a reason. They can be fixed up and salvaged. If you like the heart and soul of your landing pages or blogs then there’s no reason that you can’t hire a good writer or editor to make sure that your site conveys the message you want to send in the best possible way.
Guest on Other Sites
Your original content doesn’t have to only be on your site. It just has to be your original content. Speaking of content syndication, don’t shy away from being the one paid to guest blog or write somewhere else. Just make sure that you’re getting links back to your site.
Figure Out What’s Popular
Original content doesn’t mean anything if it’s not content that visitors want. Finding out what your specific market is into, what they’re talking about, and what they’re reading will allow you to stay one step ahead of the game and have links coming to you instead of hyperlinks going outward.