The GigaLaw Guide to Internet Law

The GigaLaw Guide to Internet Law

More information about the book: Visit GigaLaw.com
Introduction

Why You Need to Know About Internet Law

In January 2000, when the GigaLaw.com website was launched and began providing information about important legal issues for conducting business on the Internet, I wrote in a welcome letter on the site that Internet law, like the Internet itself, had grown at an incredible pace. At the time, I noted that the U.S. court system did not address any Internet issues until 1994; but by 1999, more than 550 published court opinions made reference to the Internet. At the time, that seemed like a significant figure worth citing. Now, even despite the significant bursting of many Internet bubbles, the growth continues: In 2001, U.S. state and federal courts issued more than 1,100 published opinions referring to the Internet in some capacity -- than twice as many as just two years earlier.

While not all of these cases involve substantive issues of Internet law such as those covered in this book, the point is clear: Internet law is a vital topic about which anyone who conducts business online must become educated. This is true regardless of your online activities, if you fall into any of the following categories:

  • a self-employed businessperson or independent contractor, creating content for the World Wide Web, designing websites or authoring software applications;
  • an entrepreneur who wants to launch an online business;
  • a consumer who engages in e-commerce;
  • an information technology professional for a company of any size;
  • a business executive for a company that exists solely on the Internet or simply has a promotional website; or
  • a lawyer who regularly fields legal questions from clients or simply needs to be prepared for the occasional Internet legal issue.

Regardless of what role you play online -- in your personal or professional life, as a sole proprietor, or as an employer or an employee -- Internet law affects you. This book explains how.

"Internet law" is a very broad term. In the beginning (that is, in the mid-1990s), lawyers who practiced Internet law primarily had backgrounds in intellectual property law -- copyrights, trademarks and patents. However, as the Internet has grown, Internet law has grown, too. Today, Internet law applies to a very wide body of legal issues, including not only intellectual property, but also privacy, the First Amendment, contracts, employment law and more. Unfortunately, as this topic has grown larger and more sophisticated, non-lawyers and even many lawyers have become increasingly confused by the complicated and evolving legal issues that apply in cyberspace.

At the same time, Internet law is becoming more mainstream. As GigaLaw.com Daily News illustrates, not a day has passed in recent years without at least several significant developments in Internet law. And many of these issues -- such as Napster's copyright lawsuits, domain name disputes, monitoring of employees' Internet use, widespread "spamming," and much more -- often are reported in the mainstream media, sometimes even on the front page. Therefore, even if your goal is not to launch an e-business that stays within the relevant legal boundaries, knowing about Internet law has become just as significant as knowing about other important issues in the news, from politics to education to health (and, not surprisingly, Internet law affects them all).

Whether you read this book from cover to cover or merely use it as a reference, you'll find that Internet law is a very interesting but also very tricky subject. Because Internet law is still developing -- only a few years ago most judges knew very little about the Internet, let alone how to use it -- many of the rules are in flux. As a result, although this book explains the basics of Internet law and discusses many of the emerging issues (primarily in the United States, unless otherwise noted), it's very important that you learn about the current status of any legal issue and how other countries' laws could apply before acting. As the disclaimer at the front of this book notes, you should not rely on this book for any legal advice, not only because of the budding nature of many Internet legal issues, but because every legal situation is unique. The best way to make sure you understand the legal relevance of your actions online is to consult with an attorney. Of course, if you consult this book first, you'll probably do yourself a favor, by identifying the legal issues that apply to your situation and educating yourself about the fundamental issues, thereby maximizing the time you spend with a lawyer -- and minimizing your legal fees.

The Seven Major Parts of Internet Law

Most of the seven major parts to this book introduce an important Internet law topic with a "case study," an example of a particularly interesting or key legal case. By reading these case studies, you'll quickly gain an understanding about the importance of Internet law and how significantly it could affect you. The following chapters of each part then provide the basic legal concepts and further detail on specific laws that apply to conducting business online. Here's what you'll learn in this book:

The first three parts -- Chapters 1 through 14 -- address the three basic aspects of intellectual property law: copyrights, trademarks and patents. Specifically, Part I (Copyright Law) opens with a discussion of a copyright lawsuit filed by Playboy against a man who allegedly published nearly 7,500 of the magazine's photos online without permission. A court awarded Playboy more than $3.7 million in damages for the man's copyright infringement. But, you don't have to work for (or against) Playboy to understand the relevance of copyright law to the Internet. Because so much online content -- photos, text, graphics, music and software -- is protected by copyright law, you need to know how to protect it and how not to violate it.

Part II (Domain Names and Trademarks) introduces two vital and often interconnected topics. A domain name is an Internet company's online address, but "cybersquatters" -- people who register another's trademark as a domain name -- have often created significant roadblocks for reaching the address. In early domain name disputes, trademark owners had to rely on existing laws, which often failed to provide protection, but Congress and the Internet's governing body have since stepped in, creating new laws and rules that have helped trademark owners and hurt cybersquatters. Still, cybersquatting persists. In addition, trademarks have taken on a new importance on the Internet. After reading Part II, you'll learn what trademarks are, how to protect them and how to use them in cyberspace.

Part III (Patent Law) discusses one of the most controversial -- and, often, rewarding -- intellectual property laws online. Patents have received a lot of attention on the Internet, particularly as companies have sought and obtained protection for "business methods," such as Amazon.com's "1-click" patent. Although patents have existed for much longer than the Internet itself, they have taken on new importance in recent years, not only for business methods but also for software, to which the courts have only recently extended patent protection. The chapters in this part of the book explain the fundamental issues of patent law, including how to obtain a patent and what it protects, as well as more sophisticated topics such as how to enforce and license them.

Part IV (Privacy) explains an issue that has become one of the most sensitive for consumers and businesses online. Should Internet companies be able to use information about you they collect online? Are there any limits? Does every website need a privacy policy? Should children's information be protected by additional laws because of their vulnerability and innocence? What about privacy laws in countries other than the United States -- how do they apply? The chapters in this part of the book answer all of these questions and also discuss why privacy has become such a hot topic. After reading these chapters, you'll know better how to protect your privacy on the Internet as a consumer and how to avoid legal problems over privacy issues as a business.

Part V (Free Speech and the First Amendment) explains the only Internet laws thus far that have reached the U.S. Supreme Court: portions of the Communications Decency Act and the Child Online Protection Act. These laws, designed to limit the distribution of what many consider to be inappropriate material online -- such as pornography -- were popular with Congress but not with the courts, which generally have found them to violate the First Amendment. But, as the other chapters in this part illustrate, free speech is not just about pornography on the Internet; it's also about junk e-mail and hate speech -- communications that most of us despise but that the First Amendment protects.

Part VI (Contract Law and High Technology) discusses some high-tech twists to negotiating and entering into contracts on the Internet. As we all know, the Internet has transformed the way in which business transactions are conducted. E-mail and Web-based communications are essential tools for companies that want to conduct business at "Internet speed," but understanding how contracts work in cyberspace is vital for every party to a transaction. The chapters in this part explain the U.S. "electronic signature" act, "click-wrap" agreements and the important issues to look for in any website development agreement.

Finally, Part VII (Employment Law), explains the often-overlooked issues that are with increasing frequency causing Internet and high-tech employers many legal headaches without an understanding of the risks. For example, as one chapter discusses, any company could face a lawsuit from an employee based on sexually oriented comments and/or photos distributed via e-mail in the office. Technology is also changing the way employers must address disabilities in the workplace. Also, this part of the book explains the increasing importance of "noncompete" agreements that limit who an employee can work for after leaving a company and the contentious issue of monitoring employees' Internet usage.

The GigaLaw.com Website

Despite the breadth of this book, it is -- like the Internet itself -- incomplete. This book covers the most important and fundamental Internet legal issues, but there are many others that are not addressed in these pages, including antitrust law, cybercrime and taxation of e-commerce. For these issues and many more, you can turn to the GigaLaw.com website for articles and other information about their background and current developments.

Like any good website, GigaLaw.com also offers much more than any book ever could. In addition to its ever-expanding database of articles on Internet law, GigaLaw.com offers updates on many of the issues in this book, daily Internet law news via e-mail, a law library containing many important cases and statutes, a bookshelf of other helpful books on topics relating to Internet law, and a discussion list where you can talk about the issues in this book -- as well as new developments in Internet law -- with the authors, other attorneys and others who share an interest in this important topic.

A Note About Endnotes

Throughout this book, many cases, laws, news items and other important information is linked through endnotes to the World Wide Web. By exploring the websites listed in the endnotes, you'll find significantly more detail about all of the topics in this book. When an important topics does not contain an endnote, it probably means that additional information about it was not available online (at least as of this writing); this is true for many of the older cases cited in this book (which are important to Internet law but were decided before the Web existed) and for many of the district court judicial opinions (which are available only sporadically online). Also, given the ever-changing nature of the Internet, some of the websites listed in endnotes may no longer be valid (although they were valid as of this writing) because most of them are not maintained by GigaLaw.com or this book's authors. Please check the GigaLaw.com website for ipdated information about the endnotes.

Doug Isenberg
Atlanta