Free Links, Only $50 Apiece

WASHINGTON — Online news sites are turning to a novel way to make some extra cash: requiring fees for links.

WASHINGTON — Online news sites are turning to a novel way to make some extra cash: requiring fees for links.

The Albuquerque Journal charges $50 for the right to link to each of its articles. and are more generous, and permit one to five links without payment.

There’s just one catch. Legal experts say no U.S. law or court decision allows a website to successfully demand payment for links to its content. Such linking is a common practice online and allows services like search engines to exist.

“They have no right to use the legal system to stop the linking,” says Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA. “But if sites really want to stop linking, they can easily do it by technological means, by periodically shifting the file names of their pages, by delivering the pages using CGI scripts rather than direct links, or by including HTML code that checks the address of the site from which the user arrived.”

The sites that limit unapproved linking rely on a service provided by Renton, Washington, startup In exchange for a portion of the licensing revenues, customarily less than 50 percent, handles collecting payment for article reprints, photocopy licenses or links.

Nobody questions a publisher’s legal right to demand payments for article reprints, at least for substantial quantities. But iCopyright’s license agreement, which is featured at the bottom of articles at its partners’ sites, says the company can selectively grant or withhold “HTML Link permission (that) allows you to link to a specified Web page.”

The license agreement also restricts what can be said about the content of the linked-to article. If you sign up to pay $50 to link to, say, an Albuquerque Journal article, you agree not to say anything “derogatory” about “the author, the publication from which the content came, or any person connected with the creation of the content or depicted in the content.”

Because the agreement limits negative comments about someone “depicted” in a news story, someone linking to an article about President-elect George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore would not be permitted to criticize either one.

Paula Tobol,’s senior marketing manager, defended the company’s license agreements. “The license is to guarantee the link and give you peace of mind that it will stay available for a specified period of time,” Tobol said in e-mail to Wired News. “Currently, the legal issue of linking is somewhat unclear.”

Tobol said follow-up questions would have to be answered by iCopyright’s attorney, who would not return to the office until Jan. 2. She said has received $12.5 million in funding and has 66 employees.

Jerry Crawford, a senior editor at the Albuquerque Journal who oversees the site, said he was not aware that the website’s license required would-be linkers to pay $50.

“I didn’t realize iCopyright was charging $50 to link to a ABQJournal news story,” Crawford said. “We’ve just recently started with iCopyright. I don’t know what’s enforceable or not.”

When asked whether someone who doesn’t pay for a link would be in legal trouble, Crawford replied: “I don’t know. We certainly wouldn’t go after you. We link to other sites. We encourage people to link to us.”

Crawford said the editor who had more direct experience with the agreement was out of the office until next week.

“(This) seems like a joke gone bad, in that they seem to want to charge for a reference,” says D Whitehorn-Umphres, a reader. “I keep hoping that I’ve somehow misconstrued their position. If you think it’s hard to finish school now, just wait until you have to pay for the privilege of writing your bibliography.”

UCLA’s Volokh said that while so-called normal links — such as those icopyright’s agreement covers — are permissible, links that may be misleading to consumers may be verboten under U.S. law.

Doug Isenberg, the editor of legal information site and an attorney who advises online firms, says that links that are defamatory — such as one that says “click here for the homepage of a crook” — could be actionable.

“Generally, can a news site charge $50 for a link? The answer is yes, there’s nothing illegal about charging for links,” Isenberg says. “But it probably can’t enforce it.”

An representative did not immediately reply to a request asking how many of its partner sites require payments for links.

The company says it represents approximately 70 publishers representing more than 300 publications, and an August press release about the Indianapolis Star signing up says: “Licensing rights are available for physical and electronic distribution, including reprints, photocopies, postings on a Web site, links and e-mail distribution.”

The Interactive Week agreement explicitly charges fees only for reprints, advertising-free Web reprints, and photocopies. Its agreement says: “If you want to reuse this content in any other form than those listed above, please complete the Permission Request Form. We will forward your request to the publication for handling.”

Some participating sites allow a small number of links for free.’s agreement, for instance, allows one to five links without payment.

But anyone who wants to do it must supply with a name, credit card number, and home address. The agreement does not include a way to select or pay for more than five links to each article.

Author: Declan McCullagh

News Service: Wired News


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