IT and communication - Legal issues in IT:

Quick access to Web resources: a copyright infringement?

Why? How?

Especially when mobile, handheld devices are used to access the Internet, it becomes essential to be able to view Web content in very small pieces, such as in graphic mode on a very small monitor or as short text messages (SMS messages). One possibility is to create a Web browser that operates under such conditions; this naturally requires that we can make the mobile device run a fairly large program. This is not possible on typical mobile phones used at present and in the near future, so text messages are a more realistic approach.

This is an example of a piece of text that might be an extract
from a Web page and get transmitted via SMS to a phone.
There is a lot of useful things you could do that way,
using appropriate tools. But it wouldn't be feasible to take
a Web page as such and have it transmitted as SMS messages.

Moreover, there will probably always be demand for communication modes where the user's environment ("client") is simple and may have low bandwidth and small display where normal surfing is not ergonomically pleasant. For example, the problems of accessing Web pages via an interface that presents the content via speech synthesis are largely similar to the problems of access via SMS, in the sense that relatively small chunks of plain text need to be extracted.

The question arises: does "extracting access" require a permission from the copyright owner?

"Stealing" content

If you just copy someone's Web content and make it available as yours, perhaps modified perhaps not, then the odds are that what you do is illegal. Copyright legislation applies on the Web too, and this would be a fairly clear-cut case. Other laws than copyright laws could be violated too, such as laws against "unfair competition".

Linking is normally legal without any permissions, if it really means linking and not embedding. But mere linking is not relevant here.

Sometimes people think that by modifying Web content, such as reducing image quality or doing trivial textual replacements, would make you get away with charges. But in reality, it wouldn't, and it could easily add insult to injury.

Just using information contained in a work does not infringe copyright. In the European copyright doctrine at least, which emphasizes droit d'auteur (author's right(s)) rather than mere copying right, "copying" facts isn't a copyright infringement either. This could be applied so that merely factual statements can be copied too, in reasonable amount at least, even if they are contained in a work that enjoys copyright protection as such.

However, there seems to be a trend in Europe towards a more "American" view on copyright and other "intellectual rights", from protection of (art) works towards protection of investments. This is reflected in the EU's directive on protection of data bases and in the wording of the directives on protection of computer programs. They revolve around the "skill and labor" thinking rather than creation of works. And this, in turn, might indicate that e.g. catalogs and other (large) collections of mere data, with no creative component, could be regarded as being protected by copyright to a greater extent in the future.

Giving access to third party content

The difficult question is this: If I set up a service that fetches some Web content from somewhere and sends it, modified or unmodified, to my customer, do I violate copyright? Of course, no problem arises if I make an agreement with the copyright owner, and this is often a good idea anyway. But here we discuss the general case.

The way the Web works is that content can be accessed using various software, "browsers" or other "user agents". It has often been said that by putting your content onto the Web, you implicitly accept the consequences of the "nature of the medium". If you want to have access limitations, you implement them using suitable server-side technologies. If not, anyone can access your content. Or it could be anything. Search engines have become a very important part of the Web; without them, the Web would be little more than a chaotic pile of data.

In fact, a common browser is a utility that the browser manufacturer makes available for accessing any Web content, and nobody has claimed that browser vendors would need to get permission from copyright owners of all Web pages. The user specifies a Web address (URL) and gets a document, a "page", in return, formatted as suitable in some particular browsing environment. And the "page" is displayed in pieces, typically in a window with some scrolling capability. A browser might be instructed to ignore (i.e., not display) part of the content, e.g. not to display images automatically, not to execute scripts or applets, etc., or a browser might completely lack the possibilities of showing some types of page content.

Obviously, text-based browsers (more exactly, character cell browsers) like Lynx will present the document content as mapped to plain text. This may radically differ from the author's intentions, but it has been a possible viewing mode since the early days. In fact, it was the mode used by the original CERN linemode browser! Authors can, if they realize the importance of the matter, provide their own "textual fallbacks" for the non-textual page elements that they use; see notes on augmentative authoring.

Thus, a service that sends the content of a Web page to a mobile phone is no more a copyright infringement than a Web browser is, even if some technical filtering is applied to the content.

Serving packaged content vs. user-driven access

However, serving someone else's content as "prepackaged" information might be regarded as requiring the copyright owner's permission. Consider a situation where someone has made a work of his available to the public for free so that free copying and viewing is allowed. Would such a permission give others the right to construct extracts and distribute them? Surely everyone has right to read just those parts he is interested in, and to create an abridged version for himself to make that easier. Making such versions available to the public is a different matter. The original author might allow that, if he likes, but a simple "copy this if you like" permission does not mean that.

Putting things onto the Web is somewhat similar but not the same thing as giving general permission to copy. In particular, although you let others view your documents by making it a Web page, and thereby implicitly accept some copying involved there, you don't thereby allow others e.g. copy the material onto their servers and distribute it from there, or print it as a book. And this is relevant to serving "packaged content" in some approaches at least, since packaging may involve copying.

Consequently, it can be safer not to deliver processed Web content as packaged services but just to create facilities that allow end users to select content. Even the latter is not a clear cut case legally. But it can be reasonably argued that even a sophisticated system, such as Malibu Telecom's Anti-Portal, is a tool for making it easier to end users do things that they can legally do anyway, namely view the part of Web content that they are interested in.

You may wish to compare the views presented here with the document Malibu Anti-Portal and Copyright written by Juha Koivula and Tauno Palotie, Veikko Palotie & Co.

Written 2001-04-22. Updated 2001-10-28. Technical corrections 2002-07-02.
Jukka K. Korpela,

The author is an IT professional who has written an extensive copyright FAQ in Finnish, Tekijänoikeus: vastauksia usein esitettyihin kysymyksiin, and other material on copyright, such as a treatise on copyright protection of news (Uutisten tekijänoikeus- ja muu suoja).