Emerging issue:

The new Google toolbar adds links to content through a function named Auto-Link.  For example, it is my understanding that if an address appears on a webpage, a program in Google’s toolbar can create a link from that address to, perhaps, Google’s map service.  This has stirred some controversy, as it gives Google the ability to steer traffic off the page to one of its services or advertisers.

Does the third-party addition of links to content create an unauthorized derivative work or is it within the implied license created by making the content available?  Is it accurate to state that auto-link makes the html code work differently, in a way the original coder did not anticipate?  Or is this similar to, for example, copying text from a webpage – using browser functionality to act upon the html code?

Does the third-party addition of links to content constitute a false statement of endorsement of the ‘linkee’ by the ‘linker’?  Would the user understand which links have been created by the source of the content and which have been created by Google (and is that distinction important)?

Does the addition of links create unfair competition issues, under ‘sweat of the brow’ or ‘unjust enrichment’ theories?  In what way is auto-link different from a situation where, for example, the user cuts and paste text from the webpage into an auto-link window in the toolbar itself?

I tried out auto-link – the user has to voluntarily click an auto-link button – does this mitigate all confusion?

Some websites will appreciate the value-add, some won’t.  If the website can opt in or out of auto-link, does the problem go away?

Discussion from Micropersuasion, eWeek, Dave Winer, John Robb, News.com, Dan Gillmor and SearchEngineWatch.

Historical aside: Many commentators note the resemblance of the Google feature to Microsoft’s Smart Tags function of several years ago.