Computers in Libraries
Vol. 21, No. 6 • June 2001 

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Web Design That Won't Get You Into Trouble
by Shirley Duglin Kennedy

There are likely some very good reasons why you chose to go to library school rather than law school. Alas, although you are most definitely not an attorney, you are sometimes forced to play one on the Net if you maintain a public Web site.

Certainly, nothing in my professional background as a librarian prepared me for the complexity of issues I faced in the 2 years that I worked as Webmaster for the City of Clearwater in Florida. My humble office on the top floor of the Clearwater Public Library's main branch overlooked beautiful Clearwater Harbor, into which I contemplated jumping more than once.

As librarians, we are professionally inclined to be sensitive to issues involving copyright, free speech, and accessibility. This is a good thing, inasmuch as these are important Web-related flash points. However, you may be working with people who are not as savvy about this stuff as you are. In fact, you may be working for some people who are, to put it succinctly, clueless. 

And then there are the scary quicksand issues where the legal system is still in flux—links and linking, for example. Can you stop the local escort service from linking to your library's Web site? What if they want you to link to them?

Listen up, pilgrims ... I am not a lawyer! In all likelihood, your city, county, academic institution, or school district has one or more of these properly credentialed professionals. If you have any questions whatsoever, these are the folks you need to contact first, in order to cover your, uh, bases. Keep copies of all e-mails (Print 'em out.), paper documents, etc., that deal with these sensitive issues. And remember that if you work for a public agency or institution, depending on your jurisdiction, your e-mail may well fall under an open records law. Sometimes, it's a much better idea to use the phone or take a walk into someone's office for a face-to-face.

Having discharged my obligation to steer you in the right direction for legal advice, now I'll share an ugly little secret with you. The odds are good that the attorneys in your institution's legal department are, well, less than experienced in the venue of Internet law. In fact, some of these folks would be much, much happier if you didn't have a Web site. Others,however, are educable, and you can perform a heroic act by getting familiar with some of the key issues, making note of the best cyberlaw resources out there, and sharing your knowledge as needed.

Web Development Issues
Let's go over a few of those hairy Web development issues now. The more you know, the less likely you are to get into trouble.

Many of us learned about Web design by studying what other Web developers have done. By using the "view source" option in your browser, you can look at a page's HTML code, image tags, links, scripts, etc. You may even have copied and pasted someone else's code into your own Web page. You may have snagged a picture you liked by doing the right-click "Save Image As" thing.

Maybe some of this stuff isn't such a good idea.

While the copyright situation on the Internet is dynamic and confusing to say the least, it's fair to say that pretty much the same rules apply as in the real world. The five rights granted to a copyright holder by the U.S. Copyright Act (http://www are as follows:

  • The right to reproduce the copyrighted work
  • The right to prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • The right to distribute copies of the work to the public
  • The right to perform the copyrighted work publicly
  • The right to display the copyrighted work publicly
Remember, these are the rights of the copyright holder. You, however, are guilty of a copyright violation if you take any one of these liberties with a work for which you do not hold the copyright. (Canadian readers are directed to Department of Justice, Canada, Copyright Act—

It's common in the library world to ask our peers on professional mailing lists for examples of Web-based library services, so we can examine them prior to setting up our own pages. But we need to be careful that we don't become so enamored with what some other institution has done that we more or less transplant it onto our server. It goes without saying that appropriating someone else's text for use on your own site is a blatant copyright violation, subject of course to the doctrine of fair use ( For example, you can quote part of another Web page on a tutorial page you maintain on your server for educational purposes, or reproduce some of the text on a site as part of a review of that site. 

It's especially easy—and tempting—to "borrow" photos or graphics from someone else's Web site. Control this urge even if you think you can get away with it. For one thing, you usually have no way of knowing the actual origin of an image. For example, on our Web site, we had a section describing our community that was illustrated with thumbnails of photos that our tourism office had commissioned from a local photographer. Suppose someone working on a library or community Web site in some other beach town spotted that shot of the generic, happy-go-lucky tourist family throwing cheese curls to the seagulls and decided to do the right-click thing and save the picture for use locally. And suppose the photographer who took the original picture happened to be surfing the Web and ... Well, you can imagine the rest.

Don't try and get around a situation like this by simply making an image tag in your HTML that links to the picture on the remote site. For one thing, you're still using an image that belongs to someone else. And you're compounding the crime by siphoning off bandwidth from that remote site every time someone visits your page with the image link. 

Of course, there's nothing wrong with e-mailing the Webmaster of that site and asking about the image in question. You may learn that it's in the public domain and thus is perfectly legal for you to use. Or maybe the Webmaster created the image herself and doesn't mind letting you use it on your site as long as you add a credit line.

If you make your own graphics, the copyright issue goes away—unless, that is, you start with something someone else made and "play around with it" in your image editing program. Even if you make significant changes to its appearance, you are likely committing a copyright infringement because you have created a "derivative work"(

So what in the world do you do if you need art for your Web site but you are not a graphics person? Well, your Web authoring program may come with a selection of clip art, and if you use any one of a number of popular Microsoft products (Office, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, FrontPage, Home Publishing, PhotoDraw, Works), you have free access to Microsoft's Design Gallery Live (, which not only has tons of downloadable clip art, but also music, video, animations ... Be sure to read the end-user license on the site ( to make sure your planned use of these materials complies with the terms and conditions set down by Mr. Gates and company.

The Web itself is full of clip art archives. Try Yahoo! (, the Open Directory (, or ( The site has a section of clip art specifically related to books and reading at

For other library-oriented clip art, try these sites:

What holds true for text and graphics also holds true for JavaScript, Java Applets, and other snippets of code. If you find something "neat," don't just copy and paste the code into your own Web page. Either e-mail the Webmaster and see if he or she is willing to share, or check out one of the public domain archives (i.e.,

Linking and Framing
Links between pages are the raison d'être for the world wide web. Without widespread linking, the web as we know it would not exist. Nevertheless, there are questions about the legality of such connections.

—BitLaw: Linking and Framing Concerns (

It should be a no-brainer. If someone uploads content to the Web for all to see, then anyone should be able to link to it. And you, as a Webmaster, can pick and choose which pages you wish to link to. (We librarians have a phrase for this—"collection development.")

Well, that may have been true back in the early days of the Web. If you've been at this as long as I have, you may remember when you went to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' What's New page to learn about fresh content, and it was actually possible for a person to surf the entire Web. Folks, that was less than 10 years ago. For a vivid look at the way things have changed since then, head over to the Perkins Coie Internet Case Digest database and do a search ( on the keyword "linking." You'll get back several dozen synopses of lawsuits in which Web links were the major point of contention. It's pretty amazing—and scary—how many ways there are to get yourself into trouble with linking these days. Let's take a look at some of them.

Derivative works: We discussed this a bit above, when we talked about manipulating graphics in an image editing program. People have also gotten whacked upside the virtual head for creating whole Web pages and sites that constituted derivative works. Example: You're a "Dilbert" fan. (Who isn't?) You're an especially big fan of Catbert, Evil H.R. Director. You create a fan site for Catbert, and you link to the image of every "Dilbert" strip featuring Catbert that you can find at, so that these strips appear on your pages. Friend, you've just created a derivative work, and the lawyers from United Media will soon be breathing down your neck.

Reverse passing off: Take the Dilbert example above. Only this time, when you link to the Catbert strips, you include an introductory paragraph suggesting that they are your own original works. Or you just post 'em on your site with no attribution, so that a third party viewing your site (a particularly dense third party, in this instance) may well believe the strips are your original work.

Defamation: Just because some shortsighted politician killed a funding bill that would have meant an increased allocation for local library services does not mean that you can create a link to his legislative page from your site using words that insinuate he is a pedophile.

Trademark infringement: You decide to create a Harry Potter page for your youth services department site. You think it would be a good idea to link to the image of the Harry Potter shield logo at so that it appears on your page. AOL Time Warner's attorneys would beg to differ with you. (Disclaimer: Although I am not a lawyer, I am an AOL Time Warner employee, and they have lots and lots of lawyers.)

Deep linking: You have a community calendar of events on your Web site. One of the upcoming events is a rock concert for which tickets are available through Ticketmaster. Good librarian that you are, you seek to facilitate access to the key information by linking directly to the page on Ticketmaster's site that announces the concert. You soon find out that Ticketmaster has lots and lots of lawyers, too. (Heck, they even sued Microsoft: Ticketmaster doesn't like it when its home page, with its rich collection of advertising and links to affiliates, is bypassed.

Framing shenanigans: Frames can make navigation difficult, and they are often employed poorly on Web pages. But using frames the wrong way can create legal problems as well. You can run into all of the problems discussed above simply by framing content from other sites. So, it's probably unwise to make this sort of thing a critical design element of your Web site. Enough said.

As I found out the hard way, other issues crop up when someone wants to link to you or would like you to link to them. (See my Internet Waves column in the November 2000 issue of Information Today on p. 42 for the full story. It's also on the Web at If you work for a public library or other tax-supported institution, drop what you're doing (after you finish this magazine, of course) and start hammering out some sort of written policy about external links. You'll probably have to run this by your legal folks at some point, but you're probably better off writing up something yourself, involving maybe your boss and/or the library director. (If the legal department has to start from scratch, it could get ugly.)

My article, "Linking Policies for Public Web Sites" (referenced above), among other things, discusses a very important appeals court case (see To make a long story short (and how many legal proceedings are not long stories?), a guy who published a gadfly alternative newspaper often critical of the City of Cookesville, Tennessee, wanted a link to his publication's Web site from the city's site. When he was turned down, he, uh, sought redress in the judicial system. A district court dismissed his suit, but an appeals court "reversed and remanded" the dismissal because "the city's policy on allowing links from the city's Web site was not viewpoint-neutral." The appeals court felt the gadfly's First Amendment rights may possibly have been violated.


First Amendment Issues
As a librarian and a journalist, I'm pretty much a First Amendment absolutist. But knowing what I know about running a public institution's Web site, I'm well aware of when the First Amendment can get you into trouble.

Interactive Discussion Forums
It's my considered opinion that chat rooms and interactive bulletin boards on government Web sites are nothing but disasters waiting to happen. You may have the best intentions in the world; you may have what you consider to be a bulletproof written policy about what is and is not allowed. Nonetheless, I can almost guarantee that someone will perform one of these evil deeds:

  • Find a loophole and exploit it by posting advertising or other spam
  • Hijack the bulletin board for his or her own personal jihad
  • Dominate the board by bullying and driving away other users
  • Subject local officials to ongoing ridicule and/or abuse regardless of facts
Encouraging public input is fine—include a feedback form or e-mail addresses of appropriate individuals. But I'd strongly advise against providing an ongoing electronic forum for attention seekers. Heck, newspapers pick and choose which letters to the editor to publish, and even then will edit the original content. But try doing something similar on a government Web site bulletin board and you will be accused of censorship.

Let's make government more like business. Let's sell advertising on the municipal Web site. Gee, the online library catalog page gets a lot of hits. Let's stick a banner on the top.

Let's not. 

Alas, you may be too far down your employer's decision-making food chain to have any input on this issue. But don't kid yourself that it can't happen to you. Government agencies are cash-strapped, at the same time they're having to shell out megabucks for information technology upgrades. 

Let's "monetize" the Web site.

A company called govAds (, which bills itself as "the country's first Internet advertising network for government Web sites," can help. Says govAds:

The Internet has revolutionized all aspects of business and has created a new standard for private enterprise. It's now time for the public sector to embrace this paradigm. govAds is the bridge between the status quo and the "e" volution into the digital world of Internet advertising.
As I see it, there are two issues here. The first is that, regardless of how many disclaimers you post, many people will regard the presence of an ad on a government Web site as an endorsement of the product or service being advertised. If a banner ad for Yahoo! appears on a library'sWeb page, it would not be a stretch for someone to assume that the library is making a portal recommendation.

The second issue involves advertising content. Who decides what is and is not appropriate? govAds says it "only selects advertisers/sponsors whose products and services may be lawfully purchased by individuals of all ages" and that it "utilizes internal appropriateness standards to ensure that the advertising/sponsorship placed on the site is compatible with the integrity of the site." Is that specific enough for you? Or do you, as Webmaster, want to be the advertising gatekeeper? What happens when a banner ad for Barnes & Noble or pops up and the local independent bookseller calls to complain?

Section 508 of the Workforce InvestmentAct of 1998 required all U.S. federal agencies with Web sites to make those sites accessible to individuals with disabilities, within 24 months of enacting the law. Well, the regulations were released last December (, and the clock is ticking.

"But wait," I hear you cry. "I don't work for the federal government. None of this stuff applies to me."

Think again. Just because the URL of your Web site doesn't end in ".gov" doesn't mean you're off the hook. Do you work for a dot-edu that accepts federal grants and/or funding? 

And then there's the "effective communications rule" of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). I direct your attention to a letter from Deval L. Patrick, assistant attorney general, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice, to Senator Tom Harkin, dated September 9, 1996 ( The letter is a response to Harkin on behalf of a constituent who wanted information regarding accessibility and the Internet. Patrick writes: 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires state and local governments and places of public accommodation to furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities, unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration to the program or service or in an undue burden.... Covered entities under the ADA are requiredto provide effective communication, regardless of whether they generally communicate through print media, audio media, or computerized media such as the Internet. Covered entities that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means as well.

While virtually all of us embrace the concept of accessibility in our libraries, we may overlook elements on our Web sites that can frustrate someone with a disability. Fortunately, there is no shortage of information on Internet accessibility. An excellent place to start is the online version ofBarbara T. Mates' comprehensive book, Adaptive Technology for the Internet: Making Electronic Resources Accessible to All, available on ALA's Website: This pretty much tells you everything you need to know and points you in the direction of other appropriate resources.

Web Design Isn't for Quitters
Good luck with these issues. I hope I haven't confused you more, or made you want to jump out of your office window. See the sidebar I've included for even more resources and advice, and don't give up! Use your common sense—if something seems like a bad idea, it probably is.

I Am Not a Lawyer. You Are Not a Lawyer. He/She/It Is Not a Lawyer.

We’ve all heard that, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse"—even when the law is being hammered out on a daily basis, as is the case with so many Internet-related issues. If you have any responsibility at all for your institution’s Web presence, you have an obligation to keep current on developments in cyberspace law. Allow me to recommend some of my favorite resources:

BNA’s Internet Law News ( : Yes, BNA is giving something valuable away for free. Compiled by professor Michael Geist, this is a free daily e-mail summary of developments in Internet law with links to full text.

Cyberlaw Informer ( A free weekly electronic newsletter that offers news and updates about computer and Internet law from around the globe. Topics include domain names/trademarks, cybercrime, online jurisdiction, censorship, Internet commerce and taxation, and digital signatures.

Download This ( Weekly e-mail newsletter covering law and the Internet from the people at the legal research site, FindLaw

LLRX Update ( " is a unique, free Web journal dedicated to providing legal professionals with the most up-to-date information on a wide range of Internet legal research and technology-related issues." Subscribe to the e-mail update, which notifies you when new content has been posted on the site.

TVC Alert ( An every-weekday electronic newsletter primarily for legal researchers, but it often includes links to news items and resources on Internet law.

And these Cyberlaw Resources belong in your bookmarks list:

BitLaw ( A comprehensive Internet resource on technology law, containing over 1,800 pages on patent, copyright, trademark, and Internet legal issues

Cyberlaw Encyclopedia ( Reference source for Internet, computer and technology law

Cyberspace Law for Non-Lawyers ( Online course by Larry Lessig, David Post, and Eugene Volokh—covers copyright, privacy, trademark, free speech, libel, contract law, content regulation (CDA), and dispute resolution ( Provides legal information for Internet and technology professionals, Internet entrepreneurs and the lawyers who serve them—produced exclusively by lawyers and law professors

Katsuey’s Legal Gateway: Legal Issues for the Internet and Cyberspace ( Annotated list of links to articles, regulations, case law, bibliographies, and other related resources

Perkins Coie LLP Internet Case Digest ( Compilation of cases designed to bookmark, collate, and monitor important developments in Internet law, including cases that have significant implications for Internet legal issues even if they are not directly related to the Internet—browse by topic or search.

Shirley Duglin Kennedy has worked in public, academic, and special libraries, but is most at home on the Internet. She writes the Internet Waves column for Information Today and is the author of Best Bet Internet: Reference and Research When You Don't Have Time to Mess Around, published by ALA Editions in 1998. Her day job is Web Guide manager for eCompany Now (, Time, Inc.'s e-business publication from The Fortune Group. She telecommutes from her humble home in Clearwater, Florida, where her office staff consists of three cats and those two stalwart gentlemen, Ben and Jerry. She has a B.S. from Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science and an M.L.I.S. from the University of South Florida. Her e-mail address is

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