a jaundiced eye: dark fiber
for wednesday, may 7, 1997.

The Lost Arts of Copyright and Attribution

One thing that strikes me about how the Web has evolved relative to traditional forms of distributing information is the lack of formal methods for attributing the origin of a set of ideas. Perhaps it is the lack of a <FOOTNOTE> tag, or maybe it's just a recognition of how unnecessary it is to provide incredibly detailed information about a source if it is only a mouse click away. It is no longer necessary to provide author, publisher, date, ISBN, page numbers, or other information, because they are right on the other side of this link.

But is it really unnecessary? After all, the reliability of web pages (as opposed to something like a book) is unproven. In reality, web servers go up and down all the time, their content shifts, goes out of date and is removed or is simply no longer maintained. The distant quality of a reference in a footnote remains impassive. We know, and, in a sense, so does the footnote, that we are not likely to look it up and confirm the details. The book might be out of print or signed out of the library. Unless it impresses us with its power, applicability, or sheer erudition, we are unlikely to follow the link.

With the Web, however, that's the point, isn't it? To forge your own path? To be honest, the idea of forging your own path through others' pre-prepared links strikes me as a bit absurd. Of course it is complex, and of course the possibilities are numerous, but it still reeks a bit too much of television. Which is exactly why, dear readers, they call it surfing. But in any case, free will vs. determinism aside, the likelihood of someone following up on a reference linked into your pages increases from the same activity in a book.

As a result, most HTML authors do not use heavily detailed descriptions of the reference thay cite, leaving it to context to provide both suggestion and destination. The introduction of standards to allow for citations of electronic materials is just a sign of how the print media are adapting, not of how the digital media are forcing radical changes to the definition and meaning of authorship and ownership.

We've been down this road many times before, with much cleverer men and women speaking their minds. Esther Dyson saying content is free, only to find herself quoted and reproduced at an entirely other site, complete with the WIRED copyright statement. What strikes me as amazing about the whole thing is that we now have the ability to provide references to information which didn't exist when we first published.

What does this do to the traditional conception of authority? Of authoritative references lending a much-needed boost to pieces like the one you're now reading, which does little more than repeat by-now commonly heard platitudes about "information wanting to be free" and "the death of traditional media"? Of the relationship between the past and knowledge; the future and unanswered questions?

The real question is this: if we aim to provide reliable references in the face of revisions beyond our control, changing server landscapes, and other vagaries, we should keep a local copy of the piece to which we are referring. The problem is, that goes against copyright laws based on finite resources and the rarity of presses. When everyone with a PC and a printer now has a press, and everyone with Web server access is a press, the role of librarian comes into question. Who keeps tabs on what's here? The author, the casual linker, or the third party?

rotating cross from the Vatican

What rights do we have as authors when it comes down to a conflict over a cached version of a file (possibly corrupted or downloaded right before a major update)? What rights as users of the information? Suddenly, the responsibility shifts from an all-powerful censor to every net.head for themselves.

It's a good thing we have all that free time brought on by these advances in technology.

Steven Champeon

r e c i p r o c a t e

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© 1997-2001 Steven Champeon. All rights reserved.
All slights reversed.