Software that scraped websites for content in order to make money would potentially be in breach of copyright law
The newly appointed Conservative party co-chairman, Grant Shapps,is facing calls for a criminal investigation into an online business he founded.
How To Corp sold software software that extracts articles from websites and blogs without their owners' permission. Labour MP Steve McCabe has written to the Metropolitan Police and Director of Public Prosecutions, asking them to investigate whether Shapps broke copyright protection laws.
Read more: copyright news
The software, called TrafficPaymaster, costs $497 (£313) and creates web pages by taking content from other sites - a process also known as scraping.
It then uses Google's AdSense service to put adverts linked to the topics of stolen content on the website -earning money for the TrafficPaymaster user. This contravenes Google's code of practice for AdSense and the company has banned pages that use the software from carrying adverts.
TrafficPaymaster was one of a number of projects launched by How To Corp, which Mr Shapps set up with wife Belinda in 2005. The business sells a number of self-help and money-making guides, covering everything from perfecting a golf swing to finding happiness. Mr Shapps transferred his share of the business to Mrs Shapps in 2008.
Mr McCabe had earlier sent a letter to the senior civil servant responsible for monitoring MPs' standards of behaviour, Sir Bob Kerslake, in which he asked whether the Permanent Secretary for Communities and Local Government agreed that Shapps is not involved in How To Corp business.
Breach of copyright?
Dr Sam De Silva, head of IT and outsourcing at law firm Manches LLP, said the practice of web scraping could be considered a breach of copyright law.
"The challenge for the claimant is to prove whether a 'substantial part' of the data was copied. Practically, establishing this cause of action will be difficult as in many cases only small amounts of data tend to be copied at a time, although the test is a qualitative as well as quantitative one.
"Infringement of copyright can be a criminal offence, as well as being actionable in civil law. However, criminal charges are unlikely given the higher burden of proof required and lack of enforcement by the relevant authorities."
Dr De Silva said software that scraped content, such as TrafficPaymaster, would potentially be a breach of copyright under English law. He also explained that scraping could have other consequences.
"The other, although this would be quite difficult to establish, is a breach of database rights" he said.
Writing under the pen name Michael Green, Shapps has also authored a number of self-help ebooks. In 'How To Bounce Back From Recession' he compared the process of recovering from financial difficulty to a rollercoaster ride.
"Typically, the ride (recession) is as bumpy, and lasts as long as consumer confidence is low," the book explains. "Until the government comes up with some way to even out the track (restore balance to global trade), the effects will be the same - up and down for you and me."
A report in The Observer newspaper said that Shapps has also altered his profile on the Wikipedia website, deleting information about school performance and the identity of donors to his private office.
Mr Shapps said that his wife had taken over his pen name and that he has no current involvement in How To Corp's activities.
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