Don't link or I'll sue!

"Deep linking" lawsuits threaten everything that makes the Web work right.


Links are the Web’s essence and its genius. Every public Web page’s URL, its address, is available to all; we can point any Web page to any other. That’s why the Web keeps growing — and everyone from Yahoo to you can slice new paths through its vastness and recombine its pieces in new ways.

In 1999 this is almost too obvious to restate in intelligent company, right?

That isn’t stopping a still small but growing list of companies from contending that certain kinds of links are actually illegal. Go ahead and link to our sites, they’re saying, but only if you link the way we tell you to. Otherwise, you’ll hear from our lawyers.

Ticketmaster started all this back in 1997. Miffed after Microsoft’s Sidewalk sites started linking directly to its ticket sales pages rather than to its home page or “front door,” the ticketing giant — which had a deal with Sidewalk competitor CitySearch — sued Microsoft. (The companies settled in February.) Since then, Ticketmaster merged its online operations with CitySearch, and that company swallowed up Microsoft’s city guide.

This new, engorged Ticketmaster is now at it again: It has sued, complaining that the rival firm is bypassing its home page and linking directly to “inside” pages. (The suit also alleges that stole Ticketmaster content and provided inaccurate information on the availability of Ticketmaster tickets.)

In a similar case, Universal Studios recently sent its lawyers after the proprietor of a site called Movie-List, which compiles links to online movie trailers, demanding that he stop linking to the movie previews the studio posts on its own sites. The operator of the site put up a page compiling his correspondence with Universal’s lawyers and his own Internet service provider — which, among other things, complained to him that he was not a “registered search engine,” whatever that is.

The practice that bugs Ticketmaster and Universal has become known — in what sounds like some sort of homage to both Watergate and the porn industry — as “deep linking.” That term carries some sinister overtones, but in truth “deep linking” comes naturally on the Web: I’ve already done it several times in this story, linking “deep” into other sites’ content and file structure. That serves you, the reader, a lot better than telling you to go to Wired News or the New York Times’ home pages and search for “Ticketmaster AND lawsuits” to find the articles I’m referring to. I did that work for you already; you just have to follow my “deep link.”

Ticketmaster argues that since it sells ads on its home page, “deep links” hurt its business by bypassing those ads — so it maintains that if you want to “deep link” to its site, you have to negotiate a deal with it first. According to Ticketmaster, I guess, this link is illegal: If I want to send you to where you can buy tickets to a Tom Petty concert next weekend, I’d better do it Ticketmaster’s way, or not at all.

Of course, there are ads on that Tom Petty ticket page, too. And you’d think that Ticketmaster — which, after all, is in the business of selling tickets — would welcome the additional Web traffic and business generated by “deep linkers,” whoever they might be. Similarly, Universal posts trailers to its movies on the Web because, presumably, it wants as many people as possible to see them. If Movie-List sends more people its way, why complain?

Web site operators who don’t want anyone to link to them — or who want to limit visitors to some preselected group — always have the option of building a gate in front of their pages, an authentication routine that checks to make sure that the visitor is a registered user. But outside of sites that charge subscription fees for access, such schemes are rare on the Web, for good reason: From the early days of HotWired — which originally required visitors to register for access — to the present, Web sites have learned the hard way that users tend to go away when they hit any kind of barrier. And the Web business remains a numbers game, so why hobble yourself?

The most successful companies online understand that the more people who link to you, the better.’s associates program, which lets any Web site that points visitors to Amazon’s bookstore collect a small slice of the sale, is the embodiment of this principle — but you don’t need to sign up with anyone or get permission to link “deep” to any page in Amazon’s catalog you choose.

Objectors to “deep linking,” like Ticketmaster and Universal, want to have their Web businesses both ways: They put their services and content out on the public Web to attract users, but they also expect to be able to control every facet of how those users access their services and content. They want their pages to be openly available to individual visitors but not to other sites — a division rendered nearly impossible by the very technical structure of the Web.

Of course, what software can’t do, maybe the courts can accomplish. Right now there is no legal precedent to establish either the “right to link” or, alternately, a Web site’s right to prohibit links. Sooner or later, though, one of these disputes will wind up in court.

I’d like to think that would be a good thing, and that the legal system would understand and honor the Web’s essential openness, while leaving room for the law to crack down on truly parasitical behavior (like one site’s “framing” another’s content with its own ads). But it’s just as likely that we’ll end up with a decision that extends special privileges to some kinds of commercial Web sites and declares certain kinds of linking to be verboten.

If that happens, the consequences could be grim. As it is, we’ve only barely scratched the surface of the new kinds of communication that the Web might enable. Linking today remains primitive; we need new elaborations of the Web’s interface and underlying protocols that allow, for instance, links to contain more information — so that they become less like unmarked doorways and more like well-mapped paths.

But if we are headed for a climate in which every Web author needs to check with every link target before putting up a page, then forget such innovation; forget new services and search sites, forget the continued growth of Web use. Instead, consider the morass of confusion we will enter: If “deep linking” becomes regulated or illegal, who do the rules apply to? All Web sites or just “big commercial” Web sites? Who would draw that line? What about individual users — is “deep bookmarking” to become a problem too? How about passing around a “deep link” on a mailing list?

Let’s pray for some deep sanity to prevail here, or we will find ourselves in deep, uh, trouble.

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>