Framing: Copyright Infringement or Legitimate Linking?

Framing is an HTML technique that allows authors to display multiple documents in the same window. These views can be independent windows or internal subwindows depending on the type of frame used and are designed to keep one set of information visible even as the reader scrolls and reads through another.

Back in 1996, when framing was first introduced as a feature of the Netscape browser, it was largely used by amateur Web designers to keep their navigation menu on the screen separate from their content. However, search engine troubles and browser compatibility issues quickly pushed framing aside and the technique hasn’t been used a great deal in the past few years.

Recently though, framing has been making something of a comeback, not as a way of building sites, but displaying them. This has created a great deal of controversy and a slew of worries of copyright infringement, trademark infringement and even plagiarism.

Sites that use frames typically use them to link to external Web pages while keeping their own information and advertisements at the top of the page. An example of this can be seen at About.com. Whenever you click an external link, it takes you to a page like this one, where you see the content of the linked site with About.com’s name and advertisements above.

As you can see, the title of the page is About.com, the URL is About.com and, at first glance, the entire site appears to be an About.com page. However, all of the content was written and created by Brad Templteon and, thus, falls under his copyright.

To make matters worse, several unscrupulous sites have begun using frames to scrape, though not necessarily plagiarize, content from other Web pages. This is a type of content theft that RSS footers and summary feeds can’t help prevent. They simply use the link in your feed and open up the entire page with their ads and logos at the top.

Though it’s hard to call it plagiarism in the truest sense of the word, especially since using the entire site leaves the original copyright notices intact, clearly this can be seen as branding someone else’s content as your own. Furthermore, such theft robs legitimate Web developers of bandwidth and resources while letting the framer only spend the resources needed to send the ads to the viewer.

Basically, the framer gets all of the benefits with none of the actual work.

What the Law Says

According to Gigalaw, several major legal cases involving framing have arisen over the years. The most notable of these was The Washington Post v. TotalNEWS, which dealt with the framing of news content.

Though all of the cases were settled out of court, as most are, they all landed in favor of the content creator and against the framer. In every case, the one doing the framing was ordered to stop and either provide text links to the material or cease operation altogether.

The reason is that framing a site, even if one does claim it isn’t a reproduction of the work, does create a derivative of it. Simply by adding a banner and logo across the top of a site, one changes the original work. The right to create derivative works is the sole right of the copyright holder, unless willingly forfeited, and that makes such use of the material an infringement.

Also, if any trademarked logos or sayings appear on the framed page, there’s a case that framing implies a relationship between the framer and the original site, a relationship that doesn’t exist and is, thus, a violation of trademark law as well.

Stopping Framing

If you want to prevent other sites from framing yours, there are a lot of ways to do it.

First and foremost, there are javascripts out there called “Frame Breakers? that reload your site in the top frame, thus eliminating any surrounding frames. This is a simple but very effective technique that can also eliminate a lot of accidental framing as well.

However, be careful if you use services such as Clickthru or Blogexplosion that require framing to work properly. Using such a script while taking advantage of these services will usually get you removed from them as it is considered cheating.

If you want to take a more passive approach, you can simply look at your site stats, usually through a service like Sitemeter, and see if there are any links are pointing to pages not actually on your server.

If you see referrals or page links that are out of line (some counters will display frame pages as referrals, others will do so as actual pages on your site), you can follow up on them using the same techniques that are taught in the “Stop Internet Plagiarism? section of the site.

Conclusion

Though the misuses of framing range from simply trying to place ads on someone else’s content to a lazy way to plagiarize an entire Web site, framing without permission is clearly a violation of copyright law, trademark law and a variety of other legal codes.

As such, legitimate Web developers should be on the lookout for it. Though framing is easily spotted and dealt with, if one isn’t looking for such misuse, it can continue on for a very long time.

It’s simply not fair or appropriate that someone else can boost their reputation, increase the content of their site and reap a monetary reward from your hard work. If you’re not comfortable with framing, you need to protect yourself against it.

It only takes a couple of seconds and can prevent a world of confusion.

Notes:

I know someone is going to ask, but I don’t know how About.com avoids legal trouble for its framing. The site is owned and operated by the New York Times Company, one of the plaintiffs in the original The Washington Post v. TotalNEWS case. They clearly know the legal ramifications of framing and continue to do so.

My personal guess is that, since entry into the About.com database is strictly opt in, those who want to be put into the site agree to it. However, I am not in the database and have no great desire to be so. Though I have no great problem with About.com or other legitimate (IE: Non-plagiarizing) pages framing this site within reason, as my Creative Commons License shows, I’m not going to go out of my way to get included.

If anyone who is in the database and is having their site framed has any further information, I’d love to hear it. Please either comment to this piece or send me an email.

4 Responses to Framing: Copyright Infringement or Legitimate Linking?

  1. [...] is something very different from traditional copying and has more in common with framing than scraping or plagiarism. However, it carries with it many of the same potential risks as [...]

  2. [...] The technique has been around since 1996 and was heavily frowned upon when it first became popular. Initially it was used both for creating sites, such as having navigation next to or on top of the main content, and for “framing” outgoing links, such as what Digg is doing. [...]

  3. [...] find ways around these problems, often with very controversial results. The first, and best known, was the use of framing, which displayed the source link a box below a top banner for the site that provided the link. The [...]

  4. [...] As we discussed in 2005, there are a lot of legal questions about the issue of Framing, issues that still aren’t resolved today. However, the DiggBar controversy of 2009 showed how much of a hot button issue it still can be. [...]

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