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Rules of the Road

By David O. Dabney

Ticketmaster and Microsoft Squabble About the Right to Link

For many years, the World Wide Web (WWW) and the Internet as a whole have existed as a set of interconnected networks, both working under a mutually agreed upon set of standards. Now as the Internet and the WWW start to mature into a possible money-making opportunity, more and more disputes are ending up in court with large corporations guarding what their lawyers say is their market turf. The latest dispute is between Microsoft and Ticketmaster, and it all began when Microsoft started courting Ticketmaster to be the exclusive ticket provider for events promoted on a new idea called the Sidewalk Project.

The Sidewalk Project (www.sidewalk. com) is a set of sites geared specifically to what is happening about town in various (large) cities like Seattle and New York. Not only is Microsoft is trying to compete with sites like City Guide (www.cityguide.com) but it's also trying to make a grab for what has traditionally been the market of many local weeklies by including "alternative" events like punk rock shows and small art openings.

Things between Microsoft and Ticketmaster went sour before the sites opened, and Ticketmaster inked a deal with another guide site. Of course this didn't stop Microsoft from linking to the Ticketmaster site, and it shouldn't have. It's normal for sites to link to each other even if one hasn't obtained specific permission. But what Microsoft did was to link to the internal page in Ticketmaster's site that specifically sold tickets, bypassing all of Ticketmaster's own advertising and puffy editorial. The problem? It's that puffy editorial promoting Ticketmaster shows and all those banner ads that make Ticketmaster money. Therefore, now Ticketmaster is suing Microsoft for diluting the ability of the site to make Ticketmaster money.

From my perspective, Ticketmaster is right, and they probably would have won in court. But now the dispute has taken a particularly interesting turn. You would think that Ticketmaster would drop the suit if Microsoft simply changed the link to go to Ticketmaster's regular opening page, thus not denying the buying public of Ticketmaster's ads and editorial. Wrong. Now Ticketmaster has started denying admission to anybody who comes from any Sidewalk site. This has forced Microsoft to make users go to a third-party site that has a link with Ticketmaster and then connect from there. Wacky.

Nobody seems to know why Ticketmaster is taking such a hard line. What does it matter whether you come from Seattle Sidewalk site or the Hootie and the Blowfish site, as long as Ticketmaster gets a chance to feed you ads and info before you make your purchase? My best guess is that Ticketmaster is trying to pull a power play, and Microsoft seemed like a convenient target.

Until now, exclusive sites were exclusive because you, the user, had to pay for them. Anybody could put up a link to a specific story in the Wall Street Journal site, but in order to read it, you had to pay their online subscription fee. But now, if you are a virtual monopoly (pun intended) like the Wall Street Journal or in this case Ticketmaster, you could sell the right to link to their site for a premium and stop charging users for access. After paying that premium you'd be able to advertise your site as one of an exclusive set of sites that lets you link to Ticketmaster's site and buy tickets on the WWW. This would, theoretically, increase your site traffic and thus your ad rates. All this while Ticketmaster walks away with a big fat fee, while also probably selling advertising on their site as well.

This type of development could change the whole way the WWW works. It would strangle the free flow of links and information down to a trickle as people try to get through the narrow sieve of huge corporate sites that can afford to pay such "link fees." I sure hope I'm wrong.







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