I found this today via Josh Korr of Publish2. The general backstory is that BlockShopper an online real estate startup was sued by a law firm, Jones Day, for posting information (public information that is) concerning the law firm’s associate’s home purchases. The case was settled out of court largely because BlockShopper didn’t want to pay the large legal fees that would have been associated with such a case.
What this case brings into question is concerns over the future of web links. While BlockShopper didn’t release any information that wasn’t publicly available, they did make it accessible in such a way that upset Jones Day. The article writes that:
The Jones Day-BlockShopper settlement appears to be the first precisely of this kind. Last December, neighborhood news site Gatehouse Media sued the New York Times Co. for posting Gatehouse headlines and first sentences on Boston.com, which the Times owns. Gatehouse mainly complained that Boston.com violated the Gatehouse copyright. That case, too, settled, when the Times Co. agreed to stop publishing Gatehouse headlines and openings. Digital rights advocates weren’t happy about that. But the case was mainly about whether Boston.com’s use of the Gatehouse words was a “fair use” of copyrighted material, not the broader right to link. In fact, the agreement specifies that Boston.com can continue to link to Gatehouse.
Other cases that have addressed links and copyright dealt with the permissibility of “deep linking”—linking to a page other than the home page—which, of course, is indeed permitted. Ticketmaster famously lost a lawsuit against Tickets.com about just this. But that case was about copyright infringement; by making a trademark claim instead, Jones Day opened up another legal avenue.
If sites really needed permission to link to others, the Web would be a very different place. It’s hard to imagine there would be a Gawker, or for that matter a TMZ, a Wikipedia, or anywhere else that embarrasses the subjects of posts. In another example of an effort to stop linking, a city lawyer in Sheboygan, Wis., demanded that blogger (and political critic) Jennifer Reisinger remove from her site a link to the police department. Reisinger has sued various city officials for violating her First Amendment free speech rights. Her case is pending in federal district court in Wisconsin. Let’s hope the judge in Reisinger’s cases sees linking differently than Judge Darrah did. If cases like these come out the wrong way, the Internet could go from a Web to a series of one-way roads.
Let’s hope that judges in the future have a little more sense about how the web works and how what BlockShopper did was not illegal and did not disclose any information that was not otherwise publicly available.