Extension questions

Written by Adrian Holovaty on July 21, 2004

My friend Brian Dennis thinks my All Music Firefox extension might cause trouble and that "[l]awyers are getting lathered up somewhere". And Sylvie Noël is asking whether I'll be "safe from [legal] pursuit."


For the record, my intent wasn't to offend or anger -- it was to help people use allmusic.com better. And to offer a proof-of-concept that a browser extension can add functionality to specific sites.

But anyway, Brian's and Sylvie's comments bring up some interesting questions.

What legal argument would AMG have against the extension? Copyright? Something to do with intellectual property? I dunno.

If it is indeed somehow unlawful, wouldn't that make the AMG-link-fixer bookmarklet I made a few weeks ago unlawful, too? It also alters page content. As do Jesse Ruderman's site-specific bookmarklets.

But that starts getting really hairy. Illegal bookmarklets? What? That's ludicrous.

Of course, the bookmarklet requires a user to click it each time the page loads. Whereas the extension removes that step. Is that the line? Automation?

This is some really interesting stuff to think about.

I see the All Music Guide extension as a sort of Web proxy. Kind of like those Web proxies that filter content to your liking -- like the ones that fix HTML and remove <blink> tags and stuff. The extension adds functionality to the site and, if anything, encourages people to spend more time there.

I can't see anything questionable in that.


Posted by padawan on July 21, 2004, at 4:51 a.m.:

My guess is that your extension makes HTTP requests to resources that are publicly available, i.e. you discovered them by simply looking at the source of their HTML pages. I can't see how they can object to something that simply uses resources that they made public.

This said, since you live in a litigation-happy country, you should probably take a close look at their site terms of use, they can always place a clause here that forbids just this.

Posted by Sylvie Noel on July 21, 2004, at 8:45 a.m.:

I hope All Music doesn't think your extension is an attack on their copyright. That would be ridiculous, but then I am not a lawyer, so who knows?

On the other hand, they might consider this as a pre-emptive strike, to prevent anyone else from using this technology to modify a web site in ways that they consider to be detrimental to their business (like removing ads, for example).

Posted by Brian M. Dennis on July 21, 2004, at 11:51 a.m.:

For the record, I think Adrian's extension is admirable. I like end users being able to trick out their browser to deal with crappy Web sites. I just remember stuff like Third Voice and MS Smart Tags, client side tools that modified the final presentation of a page, getting whacked unmercifully. Mucho blustering, posturing, and threatening of lawsuits.

Obviously there are lots of under the radar services that do transmogrification on th e client's behalf. Maybe staying out of the IE space is the trick, but as soon as you get near the ad inventory companies that make their money off of advertising have to get a bit twitchy.

Posted by realish on July 21, 2004, at 12:46 p.m.:

Wouldn't that make the Adblock extension illegal as well? It certainly alters page contents and behavior. Thank god.

I really don't see any legal case. As long as they are making resources and information public, it is at the user's discretion how they choose to consume them.

Posted by Scott Johnson on July 21, 2004, at 7:55 p.m.:

I really like the idea of site-specific extensions. Much better than a bookmarklet in my opinion. But I think they would have a difficult time taking the case to court. Even so, be careful when extending the sites of big companies with rooms full of lawyers just waiting to get their teeth into your flesh.

Posted by Alyson on July 22, 2004, at 11:20 a.m.:

You're probably safe. Your extension only modifies how the site works on an individual client -- you haven't changed anything on AllMusic's servers or affected anyone else's user experience (save that of the people who have *chosen* to install the extension as well). Any differences in user experience as a result of the extension are the user's choice -- modifications that the user has made to his/her own browser. (Perhaps not unlike creating your own default stylesheet for surfing the Web and overriding the ones served up by the sites you visit?)

And who knows? Maybe if the folks at AllMusic see (and understand) the problems with their design that led to the creation of user tools such as these, maybe they'll consider making some changes on their end. (Then again, the fact that they built the new site to be "optimized" for IE and merely "usable" in other browsers may indicate that they don't really care what folks using those other browsers do.)

Posted by Chris on July 23, 2004, at 12:48 p.m.:

Well the main point is that your code has to be downloaded and installed, so you're not forcing it upon anyone. You're not changing any adverts on the site or any information, your just changing the way the site works / displays.

So what's the difference between you developing this plug-in... and you developing a web browser which renders the site differently... none.

I'd very much doubt they'd have a leg to stand on. You developed this for your convenience and posted it to your website as concept code.

If I was you I wouldn't lose any sleep :)

Posted by David Bisset on July 23, 2004, at 3:10 p.m.:

I think legally, you're ok. I think you're work is great. Bravo.

However, I'm really hoping this doesn't become a trend. I posted about this a couple of days ago (http://www.flex-mx.com/archives/001007.html) and basically I just don't think it's up to the end-user to fix mistakes and leave the site creator free from responbility from conforming to web standards.

Websites shouldn't become "software" that requires "patches". I might make an exception if it was a banking site, or something who's redesign might block you from getting to critical information (with no alternative). This is just a music site, though.

Just my $0.02. Like I said, I admire your approach though. :-)

Posted by Stanton on August 4, 2004, at 2:13 a.m.:

For what it's worth, this topic is now generating comments on Metafilter. See: http://www.metafilter.com/mefi/34751

Posted by Levi on August 4, 2004, at 3:57 p.m.:

From the metafilter link: "...someone at holovaty.com wrote a Mozilla Firefox extension..."

Since when did you have a staff for this site? ;-)

Posted by sidney on August 5, 2004, at 7:54 p.m.:

I thought I posted this comment and now I can't find it. My apologies if this turns out to be redundant.

See This entry in Mozilla's Bugzilla for a feature being added to Mozilla that might make site-specific customisation like this easier.

Posted by David on August 12, 2004, at 4:08 p.m.:

This reminds me of a Slashdot story from last month where somebody had created a modified version of the Odeon theater's website on his own site, that was modified to be more accessible to people (the original version only worked in IE, for starters...). Odeon was fine with it for a while, until they started getting complaints. The copycat site was ordered removed on grounds of confusing users as to whether or not they really are on Odeon's website, illegally using Odeon's copyrighted graphics, and the possible (but non-existant) security problem of users form data being collected by the copycat site (it wasn't, it was directed on to Odeon's real site). I think there was also a concern of search engines indexing the copycat site, potentially initiating competition between the two sites.

It doesn't sound like you have any of these problems. When users visit All Music with your extension, they really are going to All Music. You're not in any kind of copyright violation because you're not using any of their graphics on your own site. Form data originates from and is delivered to their site like always. And their actual site doesn't change, and there are no duplicate sites anywhere, so search indexing isn't a problem.

I think you're fine. I wouldn't add any slanderous comments to your extension that show up when you're at that page, that would just tempt the lawyers. Not that they would have a case (IMO), but it's never nice when lawyers try and strong-arm you.

Posted by Jeff Albro on August 18, 2004, at 2:14 p.m.:

(I just saw the new thread, and this was more appropriate here)

Putting my two cents in and adding another point of view...

1) Legal issues aside, I think modifying the "standard" display of a site in such a way that it improves the user experience without interfering with that sites profit is ethically A-OK.

2) The visually impared have been using thier own style sheets instead of site-supplied ones for years. If they didn't, they wouldnt be able to use many sites. Blocking a user from doing so, or banning a user for doing so could concieveably open up a site to a ADA lawsuit, regardless of thier "Terms of Service".

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