(Hyper)links are the fundamental building blocks of the web, but the practice of linking has come under attack over the last few years. If copyright holders are able to censor or control links to legitimate content, it could disrupt the free flow of information online and hurt access to crucial news and resources on the web.
While many internet users may take for granted that no one requires permission or is forced to pay a fee to link to another place online. But this isn’t the case everywhere. Copyrighted content holders (including news organizations, media, and entertainment sites) around the world are working to remove the right to free and open linking, and the threat is more present than you may think.
Today a coalition of over 50 organizations (including COMMUNIA) from 21 countries are launching Savethelink.org. The campaign aims to raise awareness about the issue and prompt action to urge decision makers to protect the practice of free and open linking online.
COMMUNIA representative Lisette Kalshoven, Kennisland Advisor on copyright, heritage and open education, said, “Europe is in danger of limiting access to culture and knowledge by undermining the right to link.”
An example of how restricting access to links is already in place in Spain, where the Spanish government passed a law that “requires services which post links and excerpts of news articles to pay a fee to the organisation representing Spanish newspapers.” In our response to the Spanish law, we questioned what will happen to publishers who wish to share their works as widely as possible (such as sharing under Creative Commons licenses), or who have adopted business models that don’t rely on limiting access to their creative work, because the new rights created by the law are unwaivable.
It’s clear that this type of pseudo-copyright law was intended to protect the revenue flows of incumbent Spanish media publishers. However, you have to question whether such a practice might have backfired for publishers who wanted to use the new rule as a means to monetize access to their content. It’s quite telling that Google News–which funnels significant traffic to media websites–shut down in Spain shortly after the law was passed, citing concerns that allowing rights holders to charge for access to links would have been an unworkable practice for them.
Last year’s public consultation on the review of European copyright rules also contained a question on the right to link:
Should the provision of a hyperlink leading to a work or other subject matter protected under copyright, either in general or under specific circumstances, be subject to the authorisation of the rightholder?
Many groups, including COMMUNIA, responded that allowing rights holders to control access to links would be a terrible idea.
In no circumstance should hyperlinks be subject to protection under copyright. Sharing links without needing permission from the rightsholder is core to the operation of the internet. Changing this fundamental structural aspect of how the internet works would be detrimental to the free flow of information and commerce online.
Unfortunately understanding of the value of hyperlinks is not shared by all stakeholders in the discussions about new EU copyright rules. This is illustrated by a large numbers of amendments to the MEP Julia Reda’s draft report on the implementation of EU copyright directive. MEP Reda’s draft report contained clear language intended to unambiguously enshrine the right to link:
[The European Parliament] stresses that the ability to freely link from one resource to another is one of the fundamental building blocks of the internet; calls on the EU legislator to make it clear that reference to works by means of a hyperlink is not subject to exclusive rights, as it does not consist in a communication to a new public
In response to this passage, 12 amendments have been tabled that either propose to delete this passage from Julia Reda’s report or propose changes to the language that try to limit the scope of the right to link to a right to link to content that has been legally made available.
While such a qualification does not sound like a big change it fundamentally changes the nature of linking on the internet as it places the the burden of figuring out if a link target is legal or not on the person placing a link. Given that link targets are not static this is impossible to do with certainty and means that linking will become an activity that carries considerable legal risk. This would undermine the ability of many citizens, non profit organisations and small companies to run a website that taps into the fabric of the internet and has the potential to kill the internet as we know it.