When three British journalists posted a copy of a long-suppressed government report critical of Nottingham's Social Services Department, the agency that owned the copyright found itself thrust into a virtual hall of mirrors -- mirrored Web sites, that is.
Posted on a British server on 3 June, the seven-year-old Joint Enquiry Team Report - which offers a damning portrait of late-1980s governmental hysteria about satanism and child abuse - became the target of government action almost immediately. Only hours after the report went up, the Nottinghamshire County Council obtained a court order forcing investigative reporters Nick Anning, David Hebditch, and Margaret Jervis to remove it from their server. The reason? The report is under the council's copyright. Putting it on the Web amounted to theft of intellectual property.
A harsh critique of the Social Services Department, the JET Report paints a portrait of an agency espousing "rigid preconceived ideas", exercising "dubious investigative techniques", and willing to "to believe anything, however bizarre".
The reporters who posted the report say it was suppressed as soon as it was written in 1990, "and the enquiry team members were forbidden to speak about their findings". Quashing it a second time, however, has not proven as simple.
In the seven years since the report was written, the Web has spiraled beyond the control of any single jurisdiction. In fact, the network has almost entirely negated the council's attempt to control the leak. By the time the document was removed from British sites, it had already zinged its way around the globe. Sites in Belgium, Canada, and the United States mirrored it in full almost as soon as it appeared. The county got an injunction requiring the journalists to remove links to foreign mirror sites, but erasing the foreign mirrors has proven more troublesome.
After dealing with British copies of the report, the council began trying to extend its arm around the globe. It threatened both Jeremy Freeman in Canada and Peter Junger in the United States with legal action unless they removed their mirrors. A poverty-stricken 21-year-old student, Freeman quickly complied, still trying to sidestep the prohibition by replacing the report with a link to Junger's mirror. Again, the council threatened Freeman with legal action, saying that the link itself constituted an infringement of their copyright.
Junger, Harvard Law '58, was not amused.
"They just bullied that kid", says the Ohio attorney, who received his own cease-and-desist order from Nottinghamshire on Wednesday. "Under international copyright conventions, they have no legal standing to force me or him to do anything. Especially when it comes to links."
The international legal wrangling over the report is only the latest evidence of the emerging tangle over links and the difficulty of controlling online content. In recent elections in Canada and France, mirror sites and links made laws prohibiting the publication of opinion polls in the final days before voting unenforceable. In Germany, a twenty-something politician is awaiting trial for linking to Radikal, an online publication that posted instructions on sabotaging trains.
But other experts aren't so convinced that the Nottinghamshire County Council would automatically fail. "Under international agreements such as the Berne Convention, there's no reason the council couldn't sue for copyright in the US or Canada", says international intellectual property attorney Howard Shire. "And as far as links, they could be considered contributory copyright infringement."
Junger, who believes publishing the document falls under the fair-use exception to copyright restrictions, also remains convinced that outside England, the Nottinghamshire County Council doesn't have a legal leg to stand on when it comes to linking.
"It's an area of the law that's almost completely untested", he said. "There's no telling what will happen if they attempt to enforce their copyright."