March 12, 1997 11:00 AM ET

Not sure how copyright laws apply on the Web? Join the club
By Maria Seminerio

  SAN FRANCISCO--The developers, Web site publishers and self-described "cyber-anarchists" who came to the Seventh Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy here hoping to discover an easy route through the maze of U.S. copyright regulations were probably disappointed.

During the breakout sessions Tuesday, speakers echoed a single message: There are few hard and fast rules dictating how information can be used by people other than its authors once it appears online.

While many pending cases address authors' concerns about data cached in PCs or appearing within frames on sites run by potential competitors, few such lawsuits have been resolved, said Pamela Samuelson, professor of information management/systems and law at the University of California at Berkeley.

Information held in RAM, for example, was once believed legally "temporary" and therefore ineligible for copyright protection, but a California court ruled in 1993 that RAM copying could constitute a violation of authors' copyrights in some cases, Samuelson said.

Incorporating parts of others' works for inclusion in a Web site, linking to others' sites and posting parodies of others' sites are all still legally questionable and could potentially invite copyright infringement suits, Samuelson said.

Web site creators are generally safe if the information they appropriate in their sites does not threaten original authors' rights to profit from their works, she said. Another potential gray area is the use of images of artistic works on Web sites, Samuelson added. Artists can sue for copyright infringement if they are not properly credited when their works are reproduced online, and in certain cases use of the works can be prohibited outright, she said.

News sites that "frame" stories from competing publications within pages bearing their own URLs face a host of lawsuits, and while "there's no case law on this now, there will be soon," Samuelson said, although it's unclear how the courts might rule.

Advertisers wanting to track consumers' online behavior also face potential legal pitfalls, warned Tara Lemmey, CEO of Internet marketing startup Narrowline Inc., in another session Tuesday.

"You can track people's activities with your ads, but that doesn't mean you should, or that you even need to, in order to run an effective online ad campaign," Lemmey said. Customers tend to switch brands after getting burned by companies that sell their phone numbers to telemarketers who have a tendency to call in the middle of dinner, she added.

"Your relationship with your customer base is a very valuable property. The customer needs to trust you [not to misuse personal information]," Lemmey said.

A rule of thumb for advertisers is that, "the more information you have about customers, and the more you keep it in an aggregated way, the more likely you are to get sued," she said.

Increasingly, advertisers are finding that the data they get from "cookies," the software tags that allow detailed tracking of users' surfing habits, leaves them with "totally off-base" marketing forecasts, Lemmey said.

"Web surfing by nature is an impulse activity," she said. "I might jump from [an advertiser's site] to a news page with a story about Communists, but it's just because I'm curious. It doesn't mean I'm a Communist."

If any user trends can be predicted from attendance at the CFP conference, hosted by the Center for Democracy and Technology, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, among others, Apple Computer Inc. has reason for optimism. Among the roughly 300 attendees at the conference, Apple PowerBooks are pretty much ubiquitous. There was nary an IBM-compatible laptop to be seen at the conference's opening day Tuesday.

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