Friday, June 17, 2011

How a website link can get you a free trip to the USA

For as long as I've been using the internet, and that's about a quarter of a century, there has always been debate as to whether a hypertext link can be considered a breach of copyright.

If I link to another website, am I effectively breaching their copyright by using that content for my own gain?

Way back in 1997 I was threatened with law suits when I dared to link to news stories running on websites published by The Nando Times. They demanded that anyone wishing to link to their stories pay a stiff annual fee for the privilege. Naturally I told them to take a hike.

I continued to link and they never did follow-up on their empty threats. Interestingly enough, The Nando Times has faded from the leading online news source to obscurity -- perhaps as a result of their myopic perspectives on copyright.

More recently, Rupert Murdoch as whined incessantly that content aggregators such as Google were leaching his intellectual property by indexing the news stories from his websites. He also has tried to erect paywalls and other devices designed to prevent others from "stealing" his copyrighted material.

Fortunately for those of us who believe that hypertext links are more a form of flattery than theft, the law rests on our side. I don't believe there have been any successful copyright prosecutions based solely on the fact that someone's copyrighted material has been pointed to by a hypertext link.

However, that does not mean that hypertext linking can't get you into trouble -- as a British student has found out to his cost.

Richard O’Dwyer, a computer science student from Sheffield is facing extradition to the USA to answer charges that he published links to illegal copies of popular Hollywood movies hosted elsewhere on the internet.

It seems that in the USA, this is an indictable offense and, to many people's surprise, there is an extradition treaty between the two countries that covers this kind of thing.

Despite doing nothing more than publishing a few hypertext links on the web, O'Dwyer was hauled off to a British prison for the evening and is now out on a bail of $6,000 pending those extradition proceedings.

US officials have also seized the domain name used by O'Dwyer, even though the site itself was not hosted on US soil and the country code of that domain was .cc, for Cocos the (Keeling) Islands, an Australian territory.

Although there maybe legal precedent in the USA for prosecuting those who publish hypertext links to unlawful copies of copyrighted material, one must really be left wondering how far that nation's jurisdiction now extends. All of Mr O'Dwyer's activities occurred outside the USA - yet somehow he is being prosecuted under the laws of that nation.

This must be a very worrying event for all who use the Net and may, unwittingly, break some esoteric aspect of US law with nasty consequences.

So readers, if you want a free trip to the USA, just publish a few links to Hollywood blockbuster movies on your website and wait for the knock at the door.

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