In too deep

A Page on the Web, published in the Solicitors Journal, September 2001

I have busied myself recently with the redesign and relaunch of the infolaw website. The main purpose of the site, since its inception in February 1995, has always been to provide ready access to free UK legal resources on the web – a portal in current parlance. The old site did so by means of a set of static web page indexes. The new site has considerably wider coverage. In addition to the general legal resources formerly on the site, it indexes primary law and other official documents, forms and precedents and other materials. These indexes are managed in a database and intuitive methods of browsing and searching this are provided.

Coincidentally, the latest issue of Computers & Law (vol 12 issue 3, Aug/Sep 2001) dropped on my desk this week, containing two (as we will see, related) articles concerned with issues of direct import to the infolaw site and to UK legal portals in general.

Free access law services

Laurence Eastham argues in his editorial that although there are substantial free legal materials on the web:

  • the long-term commitment of the commercial publishers to free access services is suspect; and
  • many lawyers are ignorant of the ‘genuine’ free access services and there is therefore a need for an effective marketing drive to ‘sell’ their free gifts.

The commercial publishers’ free services are essentially marketing tools, designed to hook users in and drive them to purchase the publisher’s chargeable services. By contrast, the aim of the genuine free services is to facilitate access to the law, either out of public duty or out of charitable intent. There are, of course, grey areas in between occupied by, amongst others, the hobbyist, the exhibitionist etc, but the prime distinction is between commercial and non-commercial publishers.

The more commercial the publisher, the less useful the ‘free’ information ultimately is, as not only will the publisher have an interest in extracting value out of the user, with the likelihood of withdrawal of the free services also ever present, but they will also strongly assert their copyrights and other publishing rights in the material, limiting the use of that information.

Deep linking

Another C&L article in the same issue by Ian Jeffrey concerns the significance of the database right (incorporated from EC Council Directive into the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988) for online publishers.

Even a basic website may fall within the definition of a ‘database’ as it has a logical structure. Provided there has been a substantial investment in compiling and presenting the information, the database right will subsist and will be infringed if there is an unauthorised extraction or re-utilisation of all or a substantial part of it. Further, repeated extraction of small parts may amount to re-utilisation. The latter, in particular, has significant implications for the online portal.

Much of the value of the web lies in the ability to link disparate pages, not just on the ‘home’ site, but anywhere on the web. As the web grows and websites become more dense and complex, links to home pages become less and less useful for the researcher (as opposed to the online ‘shopper’). Any sufficiently focussed portal or other specialist site will therefore usually include direct links to pages within a website – this process being known as ‘deep’ linking. Potentially therefore, deep linking, if substantial, can infringe a linked site’s database right.

The more commercial the linked site and the more closely the linking site is seen to compete with it, the more likely it is that the linked site will assert its database right. Commercial publishers want you to enter via their home pages, as there you will get the corporate message, there you will be guided as the publisher intended, there you will see the adverts intended and there you will start to clock up that most precious of website statistics, the page view.

By contrast, deep linking benefits the user. For example, in providing a reference to the present two C&L articles, I could point you to the Society for Computers and Law’s site at [However, you would then need to click on Publications, then SCL magazine, then click on Other issues: 2, then locate the appropriate links within the contents list and click them. I prefer therefore to refer you direct to the pages in question: Laurence Eastham’s editorial and Ian Jeffrey’s database right article.] You found that much more useful, didn’t you? But if I do that too often on a web page, I may be in trouble.

Search engines deep link all the time, since their crawlers find and do not just index home pages, but follow all links, down to a certain level, to individual pages on the site in non-protected areas. Have you ever heard anyone complain that pages on their site appear in a major search engine? I suspect not! However, a publisher who sees a specialist portal as a competitor may well object since the value of the resulting visit will be diminished. If objection is well-founded, the linking site may well remove all the links and there will be no resulting visits and no value! Or the parties may agree some form of license, the fee for which the linking site will somehow have to recoup.

So, as we said at the start, the lunch is not free after all.

Note: Article amended December 2001 following relaunch of new SCL website!