Linkedin has filed a lawsuit to prevent unauthorized use of “bots” that register fake profiles on the social network and steal data about actual users. According to the suit, these acts constitute a breach of Linkedin’s terms of  use and violate federal computer fraud law. LinkedIn alleges that the use of the bots violates the agreement all users of the network must execute, which specifically bars the copying of other users’ profiles and information, and the use of bots or other software add-ons to access the LinkedIn website.

Many companies use bots or other software to obtain data from websites. This practice, also known as “screen scraping” can raise a number of legal issues. Among these issues are copyright infringement, if the content being scraped includes pictures or other creative content covered by copyright (assuming no fair use or other exception applies).  Additionally, if the scraping violates the terms of use of the site being scraped, breach of contract claims may arise. In some cases, courts have held that unauthorized access to website content can constitute an electronic trespass.  If you circumvent technical measures implemented by the site to obtain the content computer fraud, DMCA  and other claims may come into play.

Some companies permit electronic access to their sites’ content, and some even provide APIs to facilitate access. Most of these sites will have some form of license agreement the dictates the scope of permissible use of this content. If you operate within the scope of the license, you should be fine. If you exceed the scope of the license or otherwise fail to comply with the terms, you may be in breach.

If you operate a website and want to maximize your ability to prevent others from scraping your content, you should take affirmative steps before any violations occur. It is critical to have a carefully drafted terms of use that is customized for the particulars of your site. Additionally, it is imperative that this terms of use form a binding contract. A number of courts have refused to enforce terms of use where no contract was properly formed.

Many companies do not give proper attention to terms of use. If done right, a well-drafted, valid terms of use can be invaluable to protect you against unwanted activity on your site.