The foundation of the web is the ability to embed links from one page to another page. When writing about one topic, and you want to cite another work as a reference, the best possible way to do this is to make a like to that work: the reader can instantly load and view that other page. But what about link rot? What about when the link become broken, because the page on the other end is moved? Last week I made a proposal to eliminate link rot, but this post is about the the right to use it.
Aaron Swartz, RIP
We find ourselves this week mourning the death of an Internet pioneer. Aaron’s crime was to want all information to be free. A lofty goal. Reminds me of the lofty ideals of the founders of this country: no taxation without representation, so they broke into a boat full of tea and dumped it overboard. In real terms, a significantly greater crime than downloading documents that did not deprive anyone else use of those documents. The information age is a new time with new ideas, and we are but time travelers with no right to guess how history will judge this kind of action.
The post I made last week was very much in line with this, and I had originally planned to write this week on the legality of substituting a cached copy. Not that everything should be free, but that if you make a page available, others have a right to expect it to be there in the future. That is not unreasonable. If implemented, one might be guilty of the same thing that Aaron was accused of. But, when I think about it, considerably less profound than the position that Aaron Swartz took. But lets discuss it.
Permalinks are a Responsibility
The World Wide Web (seems like years since I have used that term) is built on the idea that information, no matter where it is, should be linked together. No single article will every be complete, but will gain from being able to reference the rest of knowledge, which in turn will be instantly available. Reminds me of Vannivar Bush‘s original post WWII article “As we may think“. Perhaps we are finally there.
What real expectation do you have about the duration of those links? When a page that was linked disappears, all the pages that link to it are diminished. To participate in the global discussion with a blog post, or other web page, means that want people to link that page. They have a reasonable expectation for a “permalink” and that the content will be there.
Without this assurance, the conversation that takes place today, can not be read tomorrow. Not that I assume that everything written will be read in years hence, still, there should be the option. To put another way, our writing should be at least as durable as that of a civilization 5000 years ago in Egypt.
Copyright was originally designed as a way to assure that if one party went to the expense of publishing a book, that they would have a monopoly on that book for a suitable time to recover their investment. On the internet where things are published at no cost, the role of copyright is less clear. For the most part it is “fear of copyright” that drives behavior, with nobody being quite sure what the rules are. After all, before I can simply read a document, it must get quite literally copied to my computer.
Most of the content being discussed is content that the authors intend to be free. Bloggers want to gain reputation, and that is best done when the article is freely available, and readily linked to. I think it is important to be clear about this: there is some content that is clearly intended to be for pay. Anything that is offered at a price, which clearly and consistently represents itself as a paid-for resource, should naturally be able to retain that status. However, a lot of content is presented on the web for free, and I question here is the uncertainty of how to handle it. Someone gives a presentation, and makes the slides available for free, is it then legal to email that to a colleague? It is hard to say. One might properly email a link to the free download, but for technical and usability reasons an email attachment works better. Will you get sued for it? Probably not, but legality is not clear. Even when it is free, copyright restricts the ability to make a copy.
What about when the link goes away? When a copyrighted book goes out of print, it is subsequently legal to print your own copies of the book. Is the disappearance of a linked document the same thing a book going out of print? This logic seems not very satisfactory, because the copyright is on the content, not the way you access it. But the nature of information technology is different from physical technology: what we call the content has to be copied just to read it, but the persistent aspect that you publish and control is the link address.
I don’t think we will find the right Internet rules from legal precedence of paper based books, but we need to consider value to the authors, and values to the society as a whole, and what makes sense to preserve that. Given that (1) the real value of the web is for linking, and (2) you made information available for free and legal linking, then as a result the readers have a reasonable expectation, maybe even a right, for the linked material to be available.
Nothing is Eternal, so we need Backups
Clearly people die, organizations crumble, and it take some money to keep a server running and a domain name maintained in the DNS registry. I am not saying that people should be burdened with having to go on paying for this in perpetuity, but instead, this simple idea:
If a party legally makes information made freely available on the internet in a linkable form, and for any reason that party does not continue to make the information available, then any other party should be allowed to take on the burden of making that information available.
There are many who would be willing to take on the burden of perpetuating such articles and blog posts. But today they exist in a kind of legal limbo. Linking to an blog post on the internet shows respect for the copyright that the author may hold. And it makes sense for so many other reasons. But the promise of linking is diminished when the destination of the link is not reliably there.
We should be able to make “back-ups” of the web! Without risking a legal suit. That is all we are talking about here. If you link to an article, you have a reasonable expectation that the article should be there in the future, and — this is the key — you should have a legal right to make a backup of that article.
This May Be Important for History
When you purchase a book, you gain the right to read that book forever (at least as long as the book remains intact). When someone makes a statement, and publishes it in the form of a book, and when people purchase and hold onto that book, those statements become a reliable part of the history of a culture. One can claim that the author said something, and there is a reliable way to prove it.
But online statements are not so permanent. An on-line author can say something, and then later change it. How, then can anyone get to the bottom of what really happened. Say an important conversation takes place between two bloggers. The discussion carries on with posts referring to, and responding to, each other. What happens when one blog disappears? Doesn’t the other side of the conversation deserve, if they take on the burden, to have both sides of the conversation present? If that conversation becomes famous, don’t we the readers deserve to have a way to access it? The loss of a blog could be considered similar to the loss of the only copy of an ancient manuscript: that one page may not in itself make a huge difference, but understanding a body of documents requires that we keep as complete a picture as possible. If someone is motivated to preserve that information for the best of intentions, they should not fear that the law will strike them down.
What I propose here is not really very radical, but simply that copyright should extend to content that is made available on the web but only to the extent that a particular link is maintained.
If that link is broken to content intended to be free, it should be legal to provide a cached copy in place of the link.
That is all. Quite simple really. Yet, all discussion, and all debate, on the Internet is strengthened by such a rule, and it is fear due to ambiguity that is harming the discussion and debate today.