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The Legal and Regulatory Environment for Electronic Information (fourth edition - 2001)
by Charles Oppenheim

- reviewed by David Brake

August 14, 2001 | The field of electronic publishing, whether on CD-ROMs, proprietary online databases or the broader Internet, is certainly full of legal uncertainties and dangers. This book, mainly aimed at ISPs and publishers in the UK and Europe, is designed to point out some of the possible pitfalls. It is by necessity less able to tell you how to guarantee to avoid them because laws covering the Internet tend to be either old ones where figuring out the application of conventional law to cyberspace is difficult or new laws which have not yet been extensively tested.

Oppenheim frequently has to suggest after giving what guidance he can that you should consult a good lawyer though even they may find themselves at a loss. He is an academic, not a lawyer, himself but this is, if anything, an advantage - as a member of his audience at a talk said, this means he gives clear answers to questions. Well - at least his answers are as clear as they can be given the state of the law in this field.

Unfortunately, like a lawyer, he tends towards caution in his advice. For example, he seems to suggest that it might be dangerous to put a title on a link - even if the title is the website's own name, and in general he suggests you seek permission to link to a site in a broad range of cases where the link-ee might object. This might be the legally prudent course, but my (layman's) guess is that in all but the most extreme cases if you don't notify the target site even if they discover your link it wouldn't occur to them that they have the right to object and if they did, removing or changing the link would be sufficient.

He gives brief summaries of the cases relevant to each subject area and provides chunks of the text of the relevant laws to illustrate his points, with some commentary. He also occasionally interjects his own views about the wisdom of a particular piece of legislation (he favours an international court of cyberspace, for example) and, perhaps most usefully, he often provides sample contracts for publishers to use, though of course it would not be wise to simply recycle them without ensuring that they are tailored to your own needs.

While it covers a lot of ground, this book does not concern itself equally with all of the legal issues you could run across online. The author's main focus is on online databases and libraries (as the title suggests), and while there is plenty of information here on the licensing of text, images and music files he only spares a paragraph for moving picture licensing - increasingly important in this broadband age - which he merely describes as having a "complex chain of rights". Spamming, a hot legal issue online if ever there was one, he devotes just five pages to, but that is because it only relates to "electronic information" in a peripheral way.

In an field that changes this quickly, a 'static' book seems lacking. This one has only just come out and is already out of date - it doesn't include recent loosening of EU law on spamming for example. It cries out for some kind of online component, but there are no legal websites listed in the bibliography and only six books, which is a shame since there are several useful resources, some of which I have listed below. Nonetheless, if you are looking for a reasonably digestible guide to some of the online legal snares that may await you, particularly if you trade with the EU, this text may be a useful addition to your bookshelf.

Some law of the net-related sites

EU Law and Policy Overview The Internet, The Information Society & Electronic Commerce

Daily updated legal news and guides from a UK-based law firm

A pro bono legal awareness site from another UK-based law firm

CyberSpace Law Center (largely American) includes daily updated news

"over 1,800 pages on patent, copyright, trademark, and Internet legal issues" collected by an American lawyer.

David Brake is a UK-based Internet consultant and journalist he can be contacted at david.brake (at)


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