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Total News, Totally Screwed

By Rob Bernstein   April 23, 1997

Late this winter, March 3 to be exact, outspoken PC Magazine columnist John Dvorak wrote about a lawsuit he claims is threatening the future of the Web. He was referring to a suit brought against Total News, a site devoted to cataloguing news information available on the Web. Time, Times Mirror, the Washington Post, among other popular news sites, are angered by Total News' use of frames; the site links to their content, but frames that content within the Total News framework.

The plaintiffs in the suit believe that Total News is "republishing" their content, while Roman Godzich, President of Total News, insists that he's doing nothing more than linking to those sites. Dvorak, in his column, sides with Godzich, and shakes an angry fist at the plaintiffs, decrying their lawsuit as "the greatest threat to the World Wide Web." Unfortunately, Dvorak, all too sympathetic to the Net of yore, fails to acknowledge the damage that this use of the framing function can cause for the future of Net publishing. Dvorak says that capturing another site's content within a frame is nothing more than "linking." He claims that these publishers can close connectivity with passwords; but what publisher wants to do that? Passwords? What a nuisance. It's hard enough for a publisher to protect his content using the legal system, without having to employ irritating Web functions.

Dvorak also states, "To me this is no different than a newsstand that sports a poster promoting Macy's and sells newspapers and magazine, too." Oh, please--the analogy is poor. The newsstand is a distributor, and the publishing houses make dollars each time the newsstand sells a publication. Total News, on the other hand, is not a distributor--the Time site is itself the distributor on the Net. There is no need for Total News as far as Time is concerned.

Perhaps a better, if still incomplete, analogy, would be this: A new television station, or Web station (let's call it Network X) broadcasts the best shows from all of the other TV stations, but frames every show within its very own rotating ad banners and logo. So you can watch The Simpsons, The X- Files, Seinfeld, Friends and all of the other top-rated television programs on Network X; this network agrees to run the other network's ads within its frame, but also decides to sell additional advertising between programs. Network X, not having to purchase or create its own content, and being able to broadcast only the best in television programming, has it made. Its only cost is that of running a television network. And online, that cost is close to nil.

"The linked sites should be paying Total News a commission. Total News is actually increasing their business." Come on, Dvorak, this is nonsense. If I were an advertiser, why would I want to keep placing expensive ads with Time when I could advertise on Total News for half the price? If Total News continues to grow in readership, and is showing users the best editorial Time has to offer, as well as the best from CNN, The Wall Street Journal and so on and so forth, why should I bother giving my business to anyone but Total News? If Total News' lofty aspirations unfold as planned, they'll soon have all of Time's readers, and eventually, all of Time's ads. What's amusing, though, is that Total News can't survive without Time. If they're too successful, there won't be any sites left to give them free content.

The real danger with regard to this lawsuit, as Dvorak admittedly does touch upon, is the danger of over- legislation. The courts, which tend to craft law with a blunderbuss rather than a scalpel, might outlaw linking, not just republishing. Yes, we agree, this is dangerous, and the courts should be made aware of the differences.

According to Godzich, the plaintiffs are now saying that Total News needs permission to link to their sites--we haven't been able to contact any of the plaintiffs as of yet, but if this is true, then there's truly cause for alarm. For now, Godzich has the plaintiff's sites spawning off into new browsers, rather than trapping their content within his site's frames--a clever compromise.

As for our staff, we're not all in agreement on this issue. We welcome your comments at

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