The Laws of Linking

laws of linkingLinking is an essential part of the Internet. Without linking, there is no Internet. However, linking also represents a potential legal hazard for a business. If you want to make sure your business doesn’t end up in legal trouble for sharing links on your website or in social media, you have to be aware of the laws of linking and respect them.

Links That Are Generally Permitted

Many types of links are considered to be safe to use. A simple text link that connects your page, blog, or social media profile to another page is generally considered acceptable. You aren’t endorsing the linked page, aren’t taking anything from the linked page, and don’t create confusion about where the content originated.

There have, in the past, been disputes about deep links, or links that bypass the home page of a website to allow readers to access deeper content without viewing the home page. Unless this linking is intended to bypass some kind of anti-infringement measures, this type of linking is also permitted.

In general, you can link to any site you want without asking permission. If a site states that you should ask permission before linking, doing so might be advisable.

Links That Can Get You in Trouble

However, there are some types of links that can get you into trouble. Embedding content from another site can lead to trouble. In this type of link, you are displaying content from another site as if it were part of your site. For example, you may embed an image, video, or text in your website that is copyright-protected. This would be considered infringement unless it falls under fair use laws, especially if there aren’t adequate disclaimers and/or visual borders separating the content that is yours and the content that is not.

You can also get in trouble if you are displaying something like a logo in a way that implies an endorsement that doesn’t exist.

This is of greatest concern when you’re linking to the content creator’s material directly, but even if you’re linking to someone who is infringing on a third party’s copyright, you can get in trouble for contributory copyright infringement. You have some protection from the fact that you might claim you didn’t know the site was infringing, but it won’t always protect you. The rules of thumb for avoiding contributory copyright infringement are: don’t link to obviously infringing material and remove information as requested.

One of the biggest exceptions is the use of thumbnails, which can be used to link to copyrighted material without being considered a reproduction of the material or a violation of copyright.

What about Memes and Social Media Sharing?

Internet memes are a kind of copyrighted material that grows by sharing. Could you get cited for infringement if you share it?

That depends. There are two types of Internet memes: original and derivative. Original memes are those that are created by a person and achieved their meme status as they were created, such as Nyan Cat or Keyboard Cat. Using these memes for anything other than sharing them in a way that promotes the original owners’ creation can lead to trouble, especially if you use them commercially.

Derivative memes are made by taking copyrighted material from a source, and altering it to create a meme, such as any of those cards saying “One does not simply” do something over an image of Boromir from The Fellowship of the Rings movie. In the US, these derivative memes are considered to fall within the scope of fair use, but in other countries (notably Australia) this may not be the case. Other times, if a larger portion of a work is used, such as the video of Hitler’s diatribe from Downfall, copyright owners may pursue creators of memes and those who share them may be exposed to contributory copyright violation claims.

Links and Defamation

Links can both expose your company to defamation allegations and save it, depending on how you use them.

If a link implies a connection between a certain person or company and an illegal or disreputable act that they didn’t commit, you may be held responsible for making that connection. Putting in a link that could be seen as standing in for naming the entity can have the same legal consequences as naming them.

On the other hand, links can protect your company from accusations of defamation. Although the most important recent ruling comes from Canada, several US court decisions make the same message: simply linking to a page or article that can be considered defamatory does not constitute defamation in and of itself. Whenever you are making a claim that might lead to a complaint, make sure you have a source and that you link to that source. You also have to make sure that when you are linking your source, your phrasing doesn’t give them additional force beyond their original meaning (e.g. calling an editorial opinion fact).

How to Respond to a Cease and Desist Order

If you have received a cease and desist or takedown order for your content, you have to respond with caution.

First, review the complaint and your content and make sure you are not guilty of violating copyright, defaming the complainant, or otherwise using the link inappropriately.

If you are guilty or think you might be—and the complaint doesn’t mention any damages or subsequent actions–the best thing to do is to take down the offending content or link. Use caution to avoid repetitions of the violation. If you are facing additional penalties, it’s best not to remove the content until you’ve talked to a lawyer.

If you think your links and content are valid, you should consult with a lawyer who handles the type of case you are facing, such as an intellectual property lawyer for a copyright violation case. Many of the laws are confusing and hard to negotiate without the detailed knowledge and experience of a lawyer.

When in doubt, talk to a lawyer about your potential risk.

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