A federal judge ruled that it is not illegal for online companies to link to rival Web sites, a controversial practice seen as critical in helping Internet firms build audiences.
The ruling, made late Monday as part of a lawsuit filed by Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch Inc. against upstart Tickets.com, gives ammunition to other companies on the World Wide Web that are facing increasing complaints about a practice known as "hyperlinking."
The legal status of hyperlinking on the Web has become the subject of a contentious fight in the e-commerce world. As Internet firms battle for consumer attention, some have set up links to competitors' Web pages to boost their traffic and offer more options--potential revenue drivers.
But instead of directing people to the front page of a competing site, hyperlinking often connects users to a page several layers deep, bypassing the advertising-rich home page and others that many companies count on for revenue.
Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch, a unit of tickets leader Ticketmaster in Pasadena, sued Tickets.com to protect its site from unauthorized incursions and remains determined to keep out the upstart Costa Mesa company.
But in dismissing four counts of Ticketmaster's lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Harry Hupp wrote that "deep linking by itself . . . does not necessarily involve unfair competition," as long as it is clear whose site a customer is on and that one company has not actually replicated another's pages.
Tickets.com applauded the decision. "It is significant, not so much for the dismissals, but in the time and care put into the underlying issues," said Daniel Harris, the company's attorney.
Ticketmaster denied the ruling would have any significant impact and said it would file an amended complaint attempting to reinstate the dismissed claims.
Ticketmaster dominates ticket-selling through exclusive agreements with many of the nation's largest sports and entertainment venues. But as the industry moves online, it is being challenged by Tickets.com, which has sewn up ticketing for the 2002 Winter Olympics and announced a deal Tuesday for a joint venture with online music provider MP3.com Inc. in San Diego.
Ticketmaster sued Microsoft Corp. several years ago over deep linking, but the case was settled last year, with the software giant agreeing not to link its Sidewalk city guides to pages within Ticketmaster's site.
"If we spend substantial money to build up a site, why should they be able to take that and build their business on the backs of our hard work?" asked Ticketmaster attorney Robert Platt.
But Tickets.com contends that deep linking is true to the open, seamless nature of the Internet.
"They have an open site and are a member of the free Internet community," Harris said. "They have to live by the rules of that community as it has grown up."
Experts on cyberspace law say it remains to be seen how much the ruling will clarify the larger debate.