Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, also know as OWL, helps students improve their writing skills. But the writing lab's instructors want students who use OWL’s Web resources to do so on the program's Web site.
That’s why officials at OWL were disturbed to find last week that Tutor.com, a company that offers free instructional resources in addition to commercial e-tutoring services, was “framing” OWL’s original writing under its own banner.
Framing is a technical tactic employed by some Web sites to allow visitors to view content from other Web sites without leaving the first site’s domain. In this case, Tutor.com was directing its users to writing guides on OWL’s site. But instead of sending users to OWL’s site to view the the guides, it would send them to a page on Tutor.com’s site that displayed the OWL Web page within a “frame” beneath a banner that bore the Tutor.com logo while attributing the materials to Purdue.
Purdue officials view framing as an unfair use of their material. They sent Tutor.com a "cease and desist" letter, claiming the company’s framing of its Web pages amounted to a copyright violation. “We encourage people to link to our Web site,” Tammy Conard-Salvo, associate director of the writing lab, told Inside Higher Ed. “But we don’t allow other sites to mirror our content.” Conard-Salvo said displaying OWL resources under the Tutor.com banner suggests that OWL endorses the company — an endorsement the Purdue lab is not keen to give. “It simply misrepresents our work,” she said. “It really suggests a relationship with a commercial entity that we don’t have.”
Conard-Salvo added that the Tutor.com’s framing activities could limit Purdue’s ability to measure the number of people who are using OWL’s resources, since its mechanisms for monitoring Web traffic don’t register visitors viewing the framed pages via Tutor.com. To continue getting funding from the university, she said, it’s important for the lab to be able to measure its relevance and value by citing accurate traffic numbers. “For us to continue our work and pour university resources into our work, we have to demonstrate that our resources are popular,” she said.
Tutor.com has since removed its pages containing frames of OWL’s content, but it disagrees with Conard-Salvo’s characterization of its use of the Purdue material. “Tutor.com directed students to Purdue's excellent writing resources, by means of a link that identifies Purdue as the source of the content and includes Purdue's trademarks and copyright notice,” Jennifer Kohn, the company’s vice president for corporate communications, said in an e-mail. Kohn said the company only charges for its online tutoring services, not for access to the portions of the Web site containing framed content from third-party sites. “Most content sites are thrilled with the extra exposure they get by being part of Tutor.com’s resource library,” she said.
But Purdue’s OWL was not the only university-based online writing lab to be less than thrilled about Tutor.com framing its content. After discovering the unwelcome use of the lab’s pages, Conard-Salvo e-mailed the writing lab listserv WCenter to let her colleagues at other institutions know that Tutor.com might be framing their pages, and explained why Purdue thought it was a problem. Officials at St. Cloud State University were irked to discover that the company was framing materials from the university's Literacy Education Online lab.
Judy Kilborn, the former director of the lab, said that while she did not know what legal recourse St. Cloud State might have, the lab regularly turns down requests from for-profit sites to link to its content, and that she fielded no such request from Tutor.com. “I do know that it’s common practice to at least ask for permission to do that kind of thing,” Kilborn said, “and I never heard from them.” She added that the lab has contacted St. Could State’s lawyers.
The legal history of framing does not offer definitive answers. In 1997, the Washington Post Company and several other large media companies sued the Web site TotalNews for framing their pages, arguing that TotalNews was leeching off their original content in order to attract traffic to its own site so it could make money selling advertising space there. But that case was settled out of court, and the copyright implications of framing are still largely speculative.
“There are a many ways by which framing could constitute copyright infringement of a linked site's copyrightable material,” writes the Publishing Law Center in an overview of the practice on its Web site. “The reproduction right may be infringed when a linked page is locally cached for the purpose of framing without the copyright owner's permission. The adaptation right could be infringed if the framed work is an unauthorized derivative work of the linked page. The public distribution, display and performance rights could also be infringed because the linking site in an unauthorized manner has altered the distribution, display or performance of the linked site's content by framing that content.”
The Publishing Law Center’s overview does not, however, address fair use as it relates to framing.
Kohn, the Tutor.com spokeswoman, said the sort of framing Tutor.com does is common practice, and that it is meant to help users navigate the company’s large resource bank more easily. “What you are referring to as a ‘frame’ is a simple navigation bar at the top of the page that helps students navigate the huge number of homework sites available,” she wrote in an e-mail. “This type of navigation bar is an industry standard for many Web sites.”
Kohn said she believed Purdue and others are mistaken in thinking that Tutor.com is exploiting their resources for profit. She said the company would be responsive to the requests of third-party sites that do not feel comfortable having their content framed under Tutor.com’s banner.
“Because of Purdue OWL’s complaint, we are reviewing those pages to make sure that all users understand that access to the resources is completely free,” Kohn said.
“If any content owner does not want to make their free content available to students through our resource library, we are happy to remove it,” she added.