What is a Link?
Before we can discuss what the legal ramifications of linking externally are we need to be clear on what a link is and what it is not.
A link in a Web document is a connection between your Web page and some other document on the Internet. They are meant to be references to other sources of information.
According to the W3C links are not:
- an endorsement of the linked page
- an implication that the linked page is created by the developers of th page linking it
- to consider the linked page as part of the originating document
Typically, when you link from one page to another, the new page opens in a new window or the old document is deleted from the current window and replaced with the new document.
The Contents of the Link Contains the Meaning
The physical act of writing an HTML link (<a href="">...</a>) does not convey any endorsement, authorship, or ownership. Instead, it's the contents within the link that imply those things:
Joe's <a href="">link page</a> is really cool!
The <a href="">article I wrote on CSS</a> should explain this issue.
Web Links and the Law
Because the act of linking to a site does not imply ownership or endorsement, there is no reason you would need to ask permission to link to a site that is publically accessible. For example, if you found a site URL through a search engine, then linking to it shouldn't have legal ramifications. There have been one or two cases in the United States that imply that the act of linking without permission is legally actionable, but these have been overturned everytime they come up.
What you need to be careful of is what you say in and around your link. For example, if you write something denigrating of the linked site you could be sued for libel by the site owner.
A possibly libelous link
Sue <a href="">said things</a> that were vicious, cruel, and complete lies.
In this case, the issue is that you said things that could be libelous and made it easy to identify who you were talking about, through the link.
What Do People Complain About?
If you're going to link to sites outside your own, you should be aware of the most common things that sites complain about with links:
- Deep linking
Many sites would rather that customers only come to their home page and then traverse their site from there. Some even have usage policies that disallow the use of deep links. Some also have scripts to prevent deep links or redirect them to their home page.
- Links with advertising
Some companies set up interstitial ads that appear between when a link is clicked and when the reader reaches the destination site. This is less likely to annoy the linked company and more likely to annoy your readers.
- Embedded Content linking
This is most often done with either iframes or framesets - and most companies do not allow their content to be framed in such a way that it looks like someone else owns the content. If you're going to do that, you should be very aware that this annoys people and if you're not willing to remove the content in an iframe or the frameset around the linked page, you may be risking a lawsuit.
Using HTML frames to surround linked content is a completely different matter. For an example of this, click on this link to the W3C about link myths. About places links to external sites in a frameset with an advertising frame at the top.
Some companies have successfully sued to have their pages removed from these frames, because it can make some readers believe that the linked page is actually a part of the originating site, and possibly owned or authored by that same site. But in most cases, if a linked site objects to the frame and it's removed, there isn't any legal recourse. That is About's policy as well - we remove the link or the frame around the link when sites object.
Iframes are even more problematic. It's very easy to include someone else's site in your content pages with an iframe. While I don't know of any lawsuits around this tag specifically, it's a lot like using someone else's image without permission. Putting their content in an iframe makes it look like you wrote the content and that can generate a lawsuit.
The best rule of thumb is to avoid linking to people in a fashion that you would find annoying. If you have questions about whether you can or should link to something, ask the owner of the content. And never link to things that you've agreed not to link to.