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Dotcoms who routinely collate and display information from other sites could find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The legal status of collated material is still hotly disputed, as recent cases which people had hoped would test of existing law in the virtual space, have been settled out of court.

Currently online information is protected under the 1998 Copyright Designs and Patents Act, which protects original literary works. In this case "literary works" covers most computer programs and databases.

Property group Countrywide recently extracted promises from the online property portal Homemovers.com that it would undertake not to use property particulars from its constituent estate agents, following a legal action undertaken by law firm SJ Berwin.

Lawyers acting for Countrywide said that the out-of-court capitulation of Homemovers, clearly underlined the extensive rights of businesses which invest in heavily in gathering and collating information, even "where their information has no independent artistic or literary value or merit."

Homemovers had included property advertised for sale by Countrywide and its subsidiary estate agents on its database of properties for sale on its site.

It would seem that in some respects Homemovers was doing Countrywide a favour by increasing the range of people who would access the property. After all when the property sold, it would be through the Countrywide agent, so it would be the beneficiary. The group had no comment about that.

Some companies are resorting to other excuses to keep their information off other people's sites. For example both Abbey National and Currys got into a tizzy last month over their product information appearing on price comparison sites.

Both protested that the information displayed was inaccurate, and that that was the reason for the complaint. Neither claimed any intrinsic objection to their content being reproduced.

Tom Hallam, president of Arrow Electronics Internet business group, also feels strongly about this situation. He summed up the problem when he was speaking to EBNonline: "If we allow someone else to convey information to the customer, it's possible that information could be wrong."

There have also been complaints from hardware distributors that content aggregators have the potential to dilute a brand. Here the source of irritation is also the automated web crawlers that can overload a smaller site that doesn't have the hardware in place to deal with the traffic.

Homemovers had said before the case went to court that the larger company was using bullying tactics. It told specialist legal magazine MIP "A protracted legal battle could have an adverse effect on our overall business." It said that the matter was at least partly sour grapes.

Countrywide said that it was not an attempt to stifle competition, but a "neccessary step to protect the Group's interests and to prevent opportunistic infringments by copying of our database of properties without consent." ®

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