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Links and Copyright: How to Solve Copyright Issues on the Web

As a writer and sometime teacher, I care a great deal about copyright and vigorously reject plagiarism. At the same time I appreciate that the web lets people combine material, collaborate and build on each other’s work in ways that were not possible before information and content were available instantly and on a large scale. These “mashups” can provide value and unique content that were not foreseen by the original authors. How can we preserve authors’ rights while encouraging the potential of this new medium? This essay suggests a possible solution.

Links are the currency of the World Wide Web.

Obviously, links are no substitute for money. Yet links perform several vital functions, and are in effect a virtual commodity. They promote, recommend, and connect all parts of the World Wide Web. While most people think of links as a way to navigate the web or as a tool for promoting their websites, links can be used as a simple form of payment or exchange for services.

Links: The Threads of the World Wide Web

The idea of links existed before the web. In the eighties, the concept of “hyperlinks,” textual links between files and documents, was revolutionizing computing. In 1989, Dr Tim Berners-Lee of CERN came up with a system for connecting documents uploaded to the internet, and the World Wide Web was born.

Links are the threads of the World Wide Web. They continue to serve as the fundamental means of all web navigation. Like a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it, a webpage with no links to it exists in limbo. No one can find it unless they already know its exact web address. (That’s what the internet was like before the web.)

Links not only help people find webpages. They help search engines find webpages, by sending out “bots,” “spiders,” or mini-programs, to follow the web of links and make road maps of the web. Millions of these searchbots are crawling the network of links all the time, since new links between webpages are constantly being forged.

Links As a Form of Recommendation

At the dawn of the web, users began building index pages of their bookmarks, keeping track of websites they liked to visit. For example, here’s an index of Egypt-related websites I maintained from 1994-1998. Yahoo began this way; I actually remember when it was a page of links. These index pages were the forerunners of modern social bookmarking sites.

At first, these links were personal recommendations. They could not be bought — for one thing, profit-making and commercial enterprise were originally barred from the internet!

A few years into the web, early search engines began counting the number of links to a website as a sign of its authority and worth. They used that to decide which webpages to list first in searches.

Once this was known, people began exploiting the promotional power of links. Link exchanges and webrings blossomed. Once the internet was opened to commercial development, paid link directories became big business.

The Death and Rebirth of Links As Recommendation

Linkbuilding caused a problem which continues to plague the web this day: how to distinguish between “natural” links (links to connect to relevant information, links which are purely personal recommendations) and “artificial” links (links to promote one’s own websites or that of a paying customer).

The idea of a link as a vote, a form of recommendation, belongs to the web of the 1990s. Yet the versatility of Web 2.0, dynamic pages allowing visitors to submit content and interact with other web users, makes new forms of link-building and recommendation (rating, voting, social bookmarking, sharing) possible.

How do search engines tell “natural” from “artificial” links? How do social networking sites distinguish personal recommendation from self-promotion? How do web users sift through all the “click here!” links to find what they really want to find? In short, how can links still serve their original function as pathways for navigating the web?

Judging and Using Links

Search engines now measure many other factors, including the vocabulary of webpages in key areas like titles and image names, to decide a website’s relevance and value. Search engines keep their algorithms private to discourage gaming the system, and penalize websites that use “black hat” methods. Even a big corporation like BMW gets blacklisted and dropped from search results if it engages in these activities.

There’s some controversy about the control Google has over the web, since its dominance of the search market largely determines website usage, and since its Adsense program is a form of paid links. But that’s a topic for another article.

Social media sites use several strategies to handle the artificial versus natural links problem. Some have a paid advertising program, and block members found to be self-promoting. Some allow linkbuilding for self-promotion but make it transparent, leaving it to users to judge which linkbuilders are promoting pages with genuine content. Most social media sites invite users to vote on submitted links, allowing members to penalize or reward sites depending on their quality.

Black hat practices have sprung up to buy votes, but the size of large social media sites tends to minimize the impact of virtual ballot stuffing.Individual users are also more aware of the promotional use of links. Aggressive linking practices are rejected with the same vehemence and disgust as telemarketing (though some gullible victims fall prey to both).

Therefore, savvy linkbuilders provide content, resources and quality in order to “earn” clicks, search engine placement, and social recommendations. They employ techniques like keyword optimization, slick web design and graphics, just as book publishers pay attention to cover art, but content is still king. Wise linkbuilders also realize that link placement matters: a genuine recommendation or review helps, whereas spamming link directories, guestbooks, forums and social sites often results in search engine penalties and user rejection.

Copyright and the Web

When the printing press made mass distribution of writing and images feasible, copyright was invented to give authors and artists’ control over the use of their work, credit for their work, and a way to earn money for their work.

The web’s enormous potential stems from how it fosters instant worldwide communication and distribution of content. This has quickly led to new forms of collaboration, creativity, research, learning, news reporting, commentary, understanding and discovery that were simply impossible before. Many of these activities are limited by traditional copyright laws, which dictate where and how a picture or piece of writing may be published. Unless we expand the copyright laws governing satire and fair use, the incredible renaissance we’re seeing will leave copyright law behind.

There are many examples of how these copyright violations actually benefit the copyright holders.

For example, a common practice on YouTube is to upload “fan videos” or “remixes,” music videos splicing favorite scenes from TV shows, movies or video games synchronized to a popular song or soundtrack. On the one hand, this activity clearly violates copyright. On the other hand, it’s free advertising of the most effective kind: an unsolicited endorsement. I can vouch for its effectiveness: most of the music I’ve bought in the last few years comes from hearing a piece of music on a YouTube video and immediately going to iTunes to purchase the song, or sometimes an entire album.

YouTube has discovered how remixes can be turned from piracy to profit for license holders. They now have a library of music which may be added to videos, and any video using one features a link to purchase the song from a legal music downloading site. That doesn’t help the copyright holders of the video track, but similar arrangements should be possible.

Another example is the onset of fan-produced original works in partial collaboration with authors, artists, or members of an original production team. The New York Times reported last year on several fan-made Star Trek movies being released online, some of them in collaboration with series actors or team members. Fansites like these promote a franchise and often have a shop or Amazon links selling items for the original publisher or franchise, for which they earn a small commission.

Copyright 2.0: Links As Copyright For the 21st Century

These examples suggest a model for solving copyright problems on the web: through links. If we cede one of the three rights that copyright was designed to protect — control over usage — we can use links to gain through the other two rights — credit for our work, and profit from our work.

Links give credit the author or source. This solves the issue of plagiarism (unattributed use of work) but not profit for the copyright holder.

Links can provide profit in three ways: by promoting/marketing a work, by direct sales of that work (assuming the online shop passes part of the profits back to the copyright holder), and by sending traffic to a copyright holder’s website, which can either sell work or earn money through paid ads, the webpage equivalent advertisements in newspapers and magazines.

It’s important to make sure the copyright holder retains the benefits of “direct sales”. The web like the printing press steals from authors and copyright holders when it’s used to sell copies of the original product without giving money to the original maker or copyright holder. I think this can be solved as follows. Derivative works (remixes, mashups) should require credit and a link back to the original product and (if possible) links to the website where the original may be purchased. Ditto for webpages that reuse graphics or other embedded content as a portion of an original article or mashup. But it should remain illegal to produce and sell the original product without permission; the publisher, producer, or license holder is the only one who may do that.

The one thing that linking does not solve is usage rights. You don’t want people using your material to promote things you hate. This could be solved by making illegal to reuse material for pornographic purposes, to promote hate speech, or to make it appear that the original copyright holder is actively endorsing a product or political view, unless one has written permission.

These ideas are the half-assed opinions of someone who’s been watching the internet and web grow and evolve for twenty years. This proposal would need refinement by legal experts before it is workable. But I think it might actually work. Whereas if copyright laws are not redefined in the next ten years, I think the web may leave them behind as obsolete and unworkable, like Prohibition (the Constitutional Amendment banning sale of liquor) in 1920s America.

— E. Brundige

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