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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Score One for the Spiders?

Spiders. Those creepy, crawlies of data mining that scour the web for bits and pieces of information have a habit of getting into trouble. Just ask eBay and Boats.com, who recently had to resort to some legal bug spray in order to get rid of the little pests. Is your data scavenging in danger?

Call them spiders. Call them robots. Call them bargain hunters (or one heck of a nuisance); they're software programs with a mission: to hunt down information and bring it back. Many search engines couldn't live without these electronic assistants to help them keep track of the proverbially explosive growth of the Web. Certainly they can save a lot of time when you're trying to comparison shop online -- just let a spider do the hunting and bring back the results. This is all well and good, unless the owner of the site doesn't take kindly to spiders. eBay won an injunction against Bidder's Edge that forced BE to stop sending spiders to eBay's Web site in search of auctions. But a somewhat similar-looking court case was just recently decided in favor of the spider-wrangling plaintiff. Does this have wider implications for information aggregators who use spiders?

First, let me give my disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. So check with someone who eats, drinks, and breathes this stuff before you do anything drastic.  That said, let's take a look at the cases at hand.

The more recent case was just decided early in April, in a district court in Florida. It involves two companies with Web sites that list yachts for sale...which may in part explain why this case did not attract the kind of attention that the earlier eBay case did. (There are more people interested in buying Beanie Babies than buying big boats.) Anyway, the older Web site in this case is owned by Boats.com, who, for the past nine years, has owned and operated Yachtworld.com, a Web site on which yacht brokers could post information about the big boats they have for sale -- sort of like electronic classified ads, with more interactivity. Enter Nautical Solutions Marketing, in 2001, with their Web site, Yachtbroker.com -- and two services that Boats.com complained blow them right out of the water.

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