The days of thinking that the Internet was an archaic, unregulated environment are now long gone. Governments and courts are now busy trying to create order from chaos.
We have recently seen a number of decisions in the UK and the US courts attempting to resolve disputes between competitors, involving issues such as metatags, hypertext linking and the "lifting" of Web site database contents without consent.
For IT directors overseeing the delivery and maintenance of a corporate e-presence, the message is very clear: ensure that you have sufficient control over any Web site design and construction going on in your organisation, whether within the IT department or around the business, or court actions could follow.
Mandata vs Roadtech Computer Systems - stealing metatags
First, this month the English High Court ordered Mandata to pay £15,000 damages after it included trademarks belonging to its rival, Road-tech Computer Systems, in its metatags.
This is the first ruling of its kind on this sort of use of metatags in the UK and gives a clear warning to anyone who is contemplating appropriating a competitor's trademarks and goodwill to attract business, that such activity will not be tolerated in the future.
A similar result would have followed had the competitor's trademarks been incorporated in the Web site itself with white text on a white background.
Countrywide Assured vs Homemovers - lifting content
Second Countrywide Assured, the UK's biggest estate agent, issued proceedings in early June against one of its rivals, Homemovers, accusing the latter of copying details from the database on www.rightmove.co.uk, Countrywide Assured's Web site, without consent. The action is presumably based on the new Database Regulations that were introduced in January 1997 and is probably the first of its kind.
The regulations give copyright protection for "original" databases - those where much creative work has gone into the selection and arrangement of the contents - as well as protecting the contents which have been the subject of substantial investment.
Deep linking - bypassing home pages
Third, there have been developments in the US relating to deep hyperlinking which allow the linked site's home page to be bypassed.
There have been a number of cases in the past where the linked site has complained that the linking site is "deep linking" to a page which is not its home page. It is the home page which often contains the advertising on which the Web site is relying to generate advertising revenue, as well as to visitor counters and links to disclaimers and terms of conditions. The victims of this deep hyperlinking complain that their smaller rivals are getting a free ride on the back of their larger Web sites.
A recent case in the Los Angeles District Court, declined to give a remedy to the linked site based on either copyright or unfair competition, although the case may go to appeal.
This is a debate which has still to run its course within the UK, but nevertheless has relevance to those who are actively and passively linked to US Web sites.