on the Web, links are almost as good as cash. Commercial sites try to plant links across the Web so they can harvest valuable traffic. Most companies would kill to have a monster Web player like Microsoft provide hundreds of links to their site.
Not Ticketmaster -- which last week sued Microsoft in Federal court, seeking to stop Microsoft's Sidewalk city-guide sites from linking to its ticket-ordering services. By linking to Ticketmaster's Web site, Microsoft was, the complaint charged, "feathering its own nest at Ticketmaster's expense. It is, in effect, committing electronic piracy. In this narrow corridor of cyberspace, Ticketmaster must maintain control of the manner in which others utilize and profit from its proprietary services, or face the prospect of a feeding frenzy diluting its content."
A link, "piracy"? Increased traffic, "diluted content"? The story provoked endless mirth among Web watchers: It was like a shopkeeper suing a tour guide (or mega-huge travel agency) for sending customers his way. Why would anyone want to turn away business in so boneheaded a fashion?
Ticketmaster is, of course, one of the least-loved monopolies in the world (remember Pearl Jam's noble-but-doomed quest to break its hold and sidestep its maddening service charges?). Microsoft is the computer industry's towering superpower, with its own monopolistic hold on the personal-computer desktop. Lending the dispute a final touch of baroque absurdity, billionaire Paul Allen, who helped found Microsoft and still owns a big stake in it, also owns a big chunk of Ticketmaster. As the lawsuit heats up, Allen, understandably, is laying low.
Most observers don't expect the suit to get very far. Veteran technology-law attorney Mark Radcliffe, for instance, argues that the complaint, based in trademark law, will probably not stand up since Sidewalk's use of the Ticketmaster trademark remains well within the bounds of a legally protected "descriptive" use.
But the case nonetheless casts a sharp light on the paradox of doing business on the Web, as companies scramble desperately to parcel up the still very limited stream of online revenue -- and try to pocket the cash of advertisers and marketing partners on the basis of numbers of eyeballs and page views.
Who's providing value? Who gets to collect the money that supports that value? Does Ticketmaster deserve any extra cash -- over and above the service charges it makes on every ticket it sells -- for providing the convenience of its services over the Web? Or does Microsoft deserve to pocket whatever ad revenue it can for attracting readers to its listings?
Surely the concert promoters, nightclubs and theaters that contract with Ticketmaster to sell as many tickets as possible to their events -- and that often have little choice but to give Ticketmaster an exclusive deal -- must be looking askance at the company's move. The suit seems to place Ticketmaster's interest in promoting its own Web site ahead of its core business of promoting ticket sales. I say "seems" because it's still hard to see how the suit benefits anyone. Can Ticketmaster really be serious about not wanting links to its site? Or is the company just so used to calling the shots in the box-office world that it can't stand the idea of not controlling every element of its business?
Ticketmaster had been trying to set up a partnership with Microsoft Sidewalk, but negotiations fell through -- apparently after Microsoft balked at paying Ticketmaster for access -- and the ticket agency formed a partnership with Sidewalk competitor CitySearch instead. Microsoft went ahead and linked to Ticketmaster's site anyway. Microsoft defends the links to Ticketmaster it provides on Sidewalk by likening it to a newspaper's publishing the phone number for readers to order tickets.
Among other things, the lawsuit charges that Microsoft links to pages deep within Ticketmaster's site rather than to its home page or "front door." Such links are common practice on the Web -- and indeed part of what makes the Web useful (as, for example, when I link to a specific story on CNet's News.com about this conflict rather than to the site's front door). But today, a visitor to Sidewalk Seattle is going to have a hard time finding any such bypass links; the typical Sidewalk referral to Ticketmaster goes straight to its home page.
Perhaps this means that, once Ticketmaster filed its lawsuit, Sidewalk defensively altered its linking approach. If so, too bad. Ticketmaster's site is an ugly, confusingly designed, slow-to-download mess of marquees and meaningless labels. If you go there trying to buy a ticket for an event, good luck. Microsoft -- or anyone else -- would be performing a public service by pointing you directly to the ordering form you might be seeking.
Like everyone else, Ticketmaster wants to squeeze some ad revenue from its Web site and wants to control how people pass through its site to maximize that income. But surely it could be more creative in its response.
One step it already appears to be taking is a kind of "scorched link" policy -- changing the Web addresses of the pages Microsoft links to. This, of course, is likely to make it harder for Microsoft's thousands of customers to find and order the tickets they want from Ticketmaster. But it's a lot faster and more effective than filing suit.
If you dig deep inside Seattle Sidewalk, locate one of Microsoft's remaining links inside Ticketmaster's site and click on it, you will find the following irate message, complete with misspellings:
Ticketmaster does not have a business relationship with Sidewalk and you
do not need them to visit us. They want to traffic on our good name and
your desire for information on live entertainment events to sell advertising
for thier sole benefit, while offering nothing in return.
This is an unauthorized link and a DEAD-END for Sidewalk.
We welcome you to visit Ticketmaster Online directly by pointing your
browser to http://www.ticketmaster.com.
Please visit us often by placing Ticketmaster in your bookmarks or favorite
Such copy can only make a company look ridiculous. Microsoft is offering plenty "in return" to users; it's providing a free entertainment guide. Ticketmaster's mad that Microsoft hasn't offered it something "in return." In Ticketmaster's view, apparently, if the link isn't paid for, it's "unauthorized." That logic would lead to a Web in which all links involved payments and kickbacks -- in other words, a choked Web.
Here's a better strategy for Ticketmaster: First, decide which links you want to favor -- presumably, those from CitySearch -- and offer visitors who arrive from that direction some kind of discount on the service charge they must pay. (Authentication might be a little tricky, but creative software design could make it work.) Then figure out which pages Microsoft links to, and add to them some copy along the following lines: "Welcome, visitors from Microsoft Sidewalk. Did you know that you're paying more for your tickets than you would if you used CitySearch instead?"
Of course, this plan would mean foregoing a little revenue. But it would certainly stick it to Microsoft, which at this point seems to be Ticketmaster's real goal.