UK companies could be open to heavy legal penalties over the use of hyperlinks on their web sites, a leading British Internet law firm warned last week. The caution came in the wake of the out-of-court settlement of a dispute between two Scottish newspapers over hyperlinks on the web site of one. The Shetland News was accused of copyright infringement because it carried headlines on its site which linked to the site of rival paper the Shetland Times. Michael Chissick, head of the Internet team at Field Fisher Waterhouse media law firm, warned that companies need to be aware of the ambiguity that has been left in the absence of a court decision. "Lawyers were looking at this case as an opportunity to have this sort of issue settled, but now (that opportunity) has been lost," Chissick said. "Because there is no precedent, companies need to be very careful with hyperlinks or they could face legal action costing tens of thousands of pounds, particularly if an infringement affects a US company." The legal battle has been under close scrutiny as the Scottish Supreme Civil Court attempted to decide whether news headlines were bound by copyright law, thus requiring on-line publishers to get permission before linking to another web site's content. But under the terms of the settlement, agreed before the court had come to a decision, The Shetland News agreed to recognise the Times' stories and was granted permission to link to them as long as individual articles are labelled as "A Shetland Times Story." A Shetland Times logo must also be available to take readers to the newspaper's home page.
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