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Deep Trouble

Do the links on your site lead to home pages? If not, your business could face legal risks.

Among the many gray areas of Internet law, "deep linking" definitely demands the attention of any entrepreneur with a Web site. Deep linking is the practice of hyperlinking to a page several jumps into another Web site rather than to the site's home page. For example, linking directly to Dell's small-business desktop page at www.dell.com/us/en/bsd/products/line_desktops.htm instead of Dell's home page at www.dell.com constitutes deep linking.

It sounds harmless enough, but when surfers bypass a home page, it often means bypassing the site's paid advertisements, bringing up some hairy trespassing and copyright issues. Ticketmaster.com sued Tickets.com over its deep linking into Ticketmaster.com's site for events that Tickets.com doesn't offer tickets for. In August 2000, a judge ruled that Tickets.com could continue its linking practices, but left the door wide open for Ticketmaster.com to pursue its complaints of copyright infringement. In short, the gray area hasn't become any clearer.

It will take more lawsuits and judgments before the issue is resolved and guidelines are put in place. In the meantime, you can take a few common-sense steps to protect yourself when deep linking. For example, make it clear that links lead to separate, independent sites, so there's no confusion for the user. The easiest way to handle this is to post a message, e.g., "This link leads to so-and-so's page. You are now leaving our site." That Tickets.com gave this sort of notice was one of the factors leading the judge to rule in its favor.

Ultimately, it's best to get permission in writing from sites you link to. It's also a good idea to check linked-to sites' legal agreements. If deep linking is prohibited in the company's legal agreement, violations could become the basis for a breach-of-contract lawsuit in the future.

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This article was originally published in the January 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Deep Trouble.

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