Saturday, November 06, 2010

If the Web Had Come First

Thinking about the incident described in my previous post, it occurred to me that the web provides a much cleaner mechanism for dealing with issues of copyright and credit than print media, making it interesting to imagine how the relevant norms and laws might have developed if the web had come first and whether they can and should now be revised to fit the new technology. Consider the simple issue of quoting, in print, something someone else has written. Under current law, before doing so you must:

1. Decide whether your use is fair use; if not you require permission in order not to violate copyright law.

2. If it isn't, or might not be, fair use, you have to figure out who holds the copyright and how to contact him, not always easy, especially for something published some time ago and/or in a foreign country.

3. You then have to get permission from the copyright holder. In many cases, including the Cooks Source flap, the amount you would be willing to pay the copyright holder is small enough so that it probably isn't worth his time and trouble responding to your query and investigating to see just who you are and how you are likely to use his material.

4. Whether or not you conclude it is fair use, in order not to violate the norms against plagiarism you have to identify who you are quoting—sometimes easy but sometimes, especially if you are putting together a work that involves quoting lots of things from a lot of people, a good deal of trouble. It's particularly difficult if you are picking up something relevant to what you are writing not from the original source but from someone else quoting it—possibly with no attribution, possibly with a false attribution.

5. In order not to engage in what I described in my previous post as reverse plagiarism, attributing something to someone that he did not write, you have to trace the quote back to the original source to make sure you have it right. To observe how rarely people do so, try googling on ["David Friedman" "the direct use"]. Then download my Machinery of Freedom, which is what is being quoted, and do a quick search for "the direct use" to find the actual quote.

I have just done the experiment. The first eight hits had the quote wrong. The ninth was my webbed book.

6. In addition to any legal problems associated with quoting things, there is also the moral issue: are you unjustly making use of someone else's work to benefit you but not him?

All of which makes the reuse of other people's writing, a useful and productive activity, difficult and costly.

Now consider the same issue on the web. In my previous post, I provided my readers with the full text of two magazine articles and a Google Docs spreadsheet. Before doing so I obtained no permissions, made no effort to determine who held the copyright or deserved the credit for them, spent no time at all making sure I had the text right. None of that was necessary because, instead of quoting them, I linked to them.

Doing so also resolved any moral reservations I might have had about making use of the authors' work. They put their work up on the web in order that other people could read it. My links funneled readers to them, hence helped them to achieve the very objective for which they had written and webbed the pieces.

If the web had come first, issues of copyright and credit would have applied only to the rare case where someone chose to copy instead to link. Indeed, the relevant laws and norms might never have developed, since the very fact that what you were reading was a quote rather than a link, written by the quoter rather than the quotee, would be sufficient reason not to trust it.

The only difficulty I can see with applying this approach online today, linking instead of quoting, in order to work around the inconveniences of laws and norms developed in the context of print publication, is that you may want to quote only a part of what someone else has webbed. I am not sufficiently expert in HTML to know whether there is any convenient way of linking to a page in a way that will highlight the passage starting at character 583 of the target document and ending at character 912, in order to signal to the reader that that is the part you are quoting.

If there isn't, there should be.


Eric Goldman said...

I believe that was part of the objective of Xanadu: Eric.

Michael said...

> I am not sufficiently expert in HTML to know whether there is any convenient way of linking to a page in a way that will highlight the passage starting at character 583 of the target document and ending at character 912, in order to signal to the reader that that is the part you are quoting.

There is a website that helps you do this: Awesome Highlighter

Here is an example: this post with the above quote highlighted

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think your assumption about linking being legally clean is not correct, or is certainly not universally accepted as correct.

There was considerable controversy in the recent past about "deep linking" where major content producers, like newspapers, strongly objected to sites linking deep into their sites, eliminating the requirement for users to wind through their advertising maze.

Unknown said...

One issue with links is they're dynamic. Today's they say one thing, tomorrow they say another. Or the site goes down or the layout or address change. It's impossible to cache every site at every change junction and the readers can never be sure whether what you're linking to is what it used to be at the time.

There're some archival web projects underway but the point was you'd need a wikipedia-permanent-history/edit-like structure for every kind of web content, and most of it takes a lot more space than plain wiki text.

Kid said...

There is no moral reservation about copying something you put on the web for free either.

It's nothing more than envy if you want money for what you already did for free, just because somebody else is now profiting from it.

Unknown said...

^Non-sense. A lot of software is distributed as freeware on the internet (private consumption) under a licence that prohibits others to resell this work.

Sometimes authors don't even allow to redistribute it freely. Other times they allow redistribution without modification with licence in tact. Sometimes modifications for non-for-profit use are allowed, sometimes not.

Kid said...

I was talking about moral reservations not legal reservations.