Internet Legal Issues: Framing

A technique frequently used on the World Wide Web is "framing". Framing permits one to create a composite Web page that consists of one or more separately addressed elements. A Web page that includes framing will consist of specifically identified areas, i.e. "frames", on the computer page. Another way of looking at this is by referring to the frames as multiple windows on the computer screen.

The frames may contain either highlighted URL addresses of other Web pages that are intended to be "selected" by the framing page user or other pages within the same Web site. When the framing page user clicks on a framed URL address the user's browser immediately transmits the content of the selected URL so that the content of each frame appears on the user's screen not as if the user had accessed a new URL page directly, but instead the content appears within the portion of the screen designated as its frame. Each frame functions independently, therefore the information that is downloaded into one frame will fill up only that frame, and it will not overwrite or affect the contents of the other frames on the computer screen.

Through hyperlinking frames enable a user to simultaneously view different Web site locations within a framed area on a single computer screen and without losing the user's connection to the framing page site. Furthermore, the URL address contained in the user's browser continues to display only the address of the framing page. It is also important to understand that the content being framed is only temporarily on the framing Web site, a result of clicking on the content's URL, while the content's permanent location continues to be the framed site. This is because framing technology works by directing the user's browser software to the URL containing the content and does not import the content into the framing page.

Frames and framing technology offers Web site owners with unique opportunities because each frame functions independently and permits the information to be displayed in only one frame on the computer screen without overwriting the content that is displayed in other frames on the computer screen. This permits the Web page owner to capitalize on the design layout of their web site by keeping advertising and certain web site material fixed within a particular frame. This frequently occurs by placing advertising in one section of the screen and a navigation bar that may include an index to the Web site or the contents of a page in a scrollable frame. These framing techniques have proven popular to Web site owners in that it has increased the commercial value of their Web site by keeping their advertising in sight of the user while displaying the content from another URL or by increasing a user's convenience of visiting their Web site by having a navigation bar always in view or a scrolling window that contains a table of contents to assist the user in locating particular content materials on their Web site.

As with other Internet techniques, such as linking and meta-tags, the ease of framing brings with it legal risks. A Web site owner should be aware that their are a number of legal issues raised by framing and including frames on your Web site and that many of these legal issues have still not been resolved. These legal issues could include copyright and trademark infringement, unfair competition, commercial misappropriation, breach of contract, tortious interference, fraud, defamation, right of privacy and right of publicity.

LEGAL ISSUES INVOLVING FRAMING

The use of framing technology was a central issue in the Washington Post v. TotalNews case that was settled a few years ago whereby several prominent news organizations, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and CNN brought a lawsuit against the Web-based news gathering site TotalNews. TotalNews was using frame technology and hyperlinking to display the news organizations' information on the TotalNews Web site and was surrounding the frames with its own advertising.

The news organizations alleged that the TotalNews Web site by its use of framing and hyperlinks to the news organizations' own Web sites changed the manner in which one read their Web sites because the TotalNews' frame contained paid advertising of TotalNews' advertisers instead of the advertising that was incorporated on the new organizations' web sites. The new organizations asserted the following claims against TotalNews:

1. Misappropriation.
The news organizations claimed that the TotalNews site "unfairly misappropriated valuable commercial property" by "[taking] the entire commercial value of the news reported at each site and literally selling it to others for TotalNews' own profit."

2. Federal trademark infringement and dilution.
The news organizations under both federal and state laws claimed that the TotalNews site "dilute[d] and detract[ed] from the distinctiveness of [the news organizations'] famous trademarks." They also alleged that the TotalNews site was "likely to cause confusion and mistake and to deceive customers as to the source or origin of the content and advertising depicted at [TotalNews'] Web site."

3. Copyright infringement.
The news organizations claimed that the TotalNews site violated "several . . . exclusive rights . . . belonging to the [news organizations] as owners of the copyrights in their respective content and Web sites, ... ."

There are a many ways by which framing could constitute copyright infringement of a linked site's copyrightable material. The reproduction right may be infringed when a linked page is locally cached for the purpose of framing without the copyright owner's permission. The adaptation right could be infringed if the framed work is an unauthorized derivative work of the linked page. The public distribution, display and performance rights could also be infringed because the linking site in an unauthorized manner has altered the distribution, display or performance of the linked site's content by framing that content.

TotalNews may have been most at risk with regard to potential copyright infringement liability for its creation of a derivative work that distorted and altered the way in which users viewed the news organizations' content in the following manner: (1) The TotalNews frame did not display the entire news organizations' computer screen as would have been the case if that screen had been accessed directly and not through the TotalNews Web page by the user, (2) the TotalNews frame surrounded the news organizations' content with TotalNews' own advertising and logo and (3) the Total News URL and not the news organizations was retained in the browser address field when the news organizations content was displayed on the TotalNews page.

4. Violation of advertising laws; deceptive practices; and unfair competition.
The news organizations claimed that the TotalNews 's site was "likely to cause and [had] caused consumers mistakenly to believe that ... [TotalNews had] an affiliation with [the news organizations], or [was] sponsored or approved of by [the news organizations], or [was] otherwise associated with or [had] obtained permission from [the news organizations]."

5. Tortious interference with business relationships.
The news organizations claimed that the [TotalNews'] site "made [the news organizations] performance of their advertising contracts more burdensome and . . . interfered with the benefits that [the news organizations'] advertisers bargained for when they purchased space on [the news organizations'] sites."

The TotalNews lawsuit was settled and the terms of the settlement provided, among other things, that TotalNews would stop framing the news organizations' Web sites, and that TotalNews would only link to the news organizations' sites with permission.

GUIDELINES FOR FRAMING

Framing is a very powerful Internet technology but its use must be carefully evaluated especially when that use involves displaying the content from another Web site. Many of the legal issues that were raised in the TotalNews case are still unsettled and therefore legal guidelines as they relate to framing have not as yet been established. Therefore, if you intend to use framing technology on your Web site you should evaluate its use and you may want to take the following precautions.

1. Do not frame a linked page within your Web sites advertising.
2. Obtain permission to frame the content from another Web site on your Web site.
3. Be careful about using your URL in the address portion of the browser if the content that is being displayed is from another Web site.


This article is not legal advice. You should consult an attorney if you have legal questions that relate to your specific publishing issues and projects.