Legal battles are nothing new to the larger computer world. Some computer companies, in fact, have a not-so-stellar reputation for fighting their competitive battles as much in the courts as in the marketplace.
Apple, for instance, has long sued any company that it felt might encroach on its turf by selling products that were too similar to its own. Recently, Microsoft got egg on its face when it was revealed that it had threatened legal action against an independent lab for trying to publish test results showing that one of Microsoft's programs ran considerably faster on Windows NT 4.0 than on the newer and supposedly faster Windows 2000.
Now the Internet is opening up new opportunities for legal attacks. Whether you use the Internet for business or home use, or both, to avoid getting hauled into court, heed some commonsense advice.
MOM WAS RIGHT
The Internet has a reputation for offering free access to the world's information and anonymity for it users, but that doesn't mean everything online is up for grabs or that users need not worry about what they say or do online.
• Libel. Anybody who has participated in online discussions for any period of time has undoubtedly seen libel accusations bandied about. Very little of this ever goes anywhere, says Frederic M. Wilf, an attorney with Morgan Lewis & Bockius, Philadelphia, PA, who has extensive experience with the online world.
This country has a long history of protecting speech. To win a libel suit and collect damages, you have to do a lot more than prove your reputation was tarnished. Typically, you also have to prove that what was said was false, that the person saying it was negligent in determining whether it was true or false and that you suffered tangible financial losses.
This doesn't stop people from hiring lawyers to try to intimidate others into offering online apologies, says Wilf. Your best bet is to stick to the issues and avoid personal attacks. Your mother's advice still holds: Think before you speak.
• Copyright. The legal brouhaha surrounding Napster, the online music-sharing program, has focused attention on online copyright. Despite the Internet's laissez-faire origins, copyright doesn't mean people have the right to copy everything they see or hear on the Web.
Just as in the offline world, the copyright law gives the creator of intellectual property on the Internet, including Web text, graphics, audio and video, the right to determine how it can be copied.
Some companies hire public relations agencies to uncover incidents of copyright infringement, says Marc Brown, an attorney with Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly, Los Angeles, CA, who focuses on e-commerce issues. When someone is caught, often the infringer will receive a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer.
You do have the legal right to copy without permission a small part of the work of others under certain conditions, such as when offering criticism or when using it for educational purposes.
One common fallacy is that unless the work is accompanied by a copyright symbol (©), it doesn't have copyright protection. Since 1989 all creative works are copyrighted the instant they assume a tangible form, whether on paper or on the Net.
• Trademarks. Another hot legal issue concerns domain names, those Web addresses expressed in an easily recognized way such as "Yourname.com." People shouldn't think that just because a domain name isn't currently used that they can use it for their own Web sites.
Regulations of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the non-profit corporation responsible for domain name management (www.icann.org), prevent you from using a domain name that's too similar to a trademarked business name owned by someone else.
If you're creating a Web site and choosing a domain for it, choose one not likely to confuse others into thinking that you're someone else, says Wilf. Trying to feed off the name recognition of a trademark holder can cause ICANN to force you to relinquish the name and even lead to legal action.
It's also a good idea before settling on a domain name for a business site to do a trademark clearance search, or hire someone to do one for you, says Brown.
If you have a domain name based on a trademarked business name, it's good practice to periodically search the Web to see if anybody is using your trademark in a way likely to confuse your customers.
Excellent Web sites where you can delve further into Internet legal issues include Cyberspace Law and Regulation (http://law.about.com/cs/cyberspacelaw) and GigaLaw.com (www.gigalaw.com).
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.