Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Controlling Content

A friend of mine reminded me of a post that I wrote many years ago (five, by my reckoning) with which I no longer entirely agree.

The post was entitled, “Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now” and it’s main line of argument was that people should not try to control where their content appears on the web.

My reasoning was threefold. First, if people are citing your content, or, really, reproducing lengthy citations from it, on their site then (a) that may fall under the doctrine of “fair use” and (b) as long as they are attributing it to you and linking back to the original, that should be fine.

Second, I invoked John Perry Barlow and asserted that “giving it away” was the wave of the future and that companies should share content freely and focus on making money from inimitable products or services. As an illustration, I referred the Grateful Dead’s willingness to allow taping at their concerts while charging for attendance at said concerts.

Finally, I argued that, since every page on the web is literally one click away from any other page, the very notion of a “site” is questionable. That is, in a sense, the web is the site, so quibbling about where content appears (on this site or that site) misses something fundamental about how the web works (or, more accurately, how the very nature of the web calls into question the absolute location of any particular piece of content).

Dissenting from Myself

As I mentioned, I wrote the original piece a long time ago and my thoughts on copyright and control of content have in the interim shifted somewhat.

For example, a little over two years ago I started working for an online publisher and came to experience first hand what it’s like when someone scrapes your content and publishes it in it’s entirety to their site (and not always with proper attribution). Aside from blatant issues of copyright infringement, there is an actual business impact to this sort of thievery to the degree that the stealing site reaps the SEO reward of your content, on the one hand, but can also bring Google penalties down on your site for publishing “duplicate content.” (If any SEOs are reading this and I’m getting this wrong, please school me in the comments.)

My thoughts on digital copyright have also been influenced by Robert Levine’s book Free Ride, in which he convincingly argues that, rather than a question of free speech or freedom of information, the people calling most vocally for “freedom of content” are actually huge businesses (Google and Apple, among them) who sell services or products that benefit from unlimited access to content. If you can fill an iPod with music you downloaded illegally from the web, or use Google to find such music, the argument goes, then the content creator’s loss is the gain of Google and Apple.

Finally, I think that, underlying my argument, was the notion that “content is going to be stolen, so don’t build your business around ownership of content,” which is really more an expression of resigned acceptance than an actual argument.

All That’s Solid

We live in a world in which things that used to be concrete—books, records, movies, etc.—and relatively difficult to reproduce and distribute, now exist as configurations of electricity that can be replicated at will and accessed from anywhere. The obstinacy of matter that once offered some protection to works of imagination, intellect, technical proficiency and physical prowess, has evaporated.

We are in the midst of dealing with the repercussions of this technological turn of events and the end is not yet in sight. Organizations and individuals are experimenting with a variety of methods for tracking, tagging and getting paid for access to content, but there is no perfect solution yet that can prevent people from “taking” whatever content they like. In fact, these people can easily feel little guilt for doing so because, in the end, they aren’t “taking” anything at all; they are merely copying or reproducing, as I said, a “configuration of electricity.”

Should someone who has recorded a piece of music or written a book or produced a film be able to control access to their work? I believe that they should.

Can they now? Not entirely.

Will they be able to do so in the future? I am not certain and tend to think that, if the work can be copied and distributed electronically, then it will always be, to a greater or lesser degree, beyond their control.

Image from the Public Domain

Category: Emerging Media, Ethics

Tagged: , , ,

6 Responses

  1. J Slawney says:

    With current data mining techniques and recognition systems it would be a cinch to detect and pursue copied content on the web. If you wonder why more patent trolls do not ramp here the bottleneck is the slow, behind-the-times and unpredictable legal system and the rapacious IP lawyers. Just ain’t worth the meager returns to prosecute them copiers/fraudsters/forgers. Would expect our future to be ever more like Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) or Gide’s The Counterfeiters as inimitable genius (genius cannot be imitated as Nietzsche said) disappears from the Genius Bars of the planet.

  2. admin says:

    I think you are right on two fronts.

    It is relatively easy to find copied content on the web (though this is more difficult once you get into the deeper web of message boards and private communities and, as a matter of fact, as “private” webs become more possible, this will pose problems in terms of detecting “content theft”) and it can be relatively difficult to get violators to cease and desist. Interestingly, this is not relegated to the in-baked, bureaucratic lethargy of legal systems but also includes the rather Byzantine complexity of large corporations like Google. They are not always forthright, or particularly responsive, when you point out to them that your stuff is being ripped off/duplicate without permission (even though this is something that they explicitly want to police).

  3. I think as the fishbowl gets more crowded, we are starting to see less “information wants to be free” and more “you got a licence to be hunting these woods?” ironically, it was you guys I called out for inadequate citation in a post this summer.

    to their credit, ann and shelly responded in a civil fashion, and I ceded shelly her point that “there are only so many different ways to discuss the basics of email marketing.” I still think the marketingprofs piece could have linked directly to the post from which they pulled the information cited instead of just to “,” but I think my persisting crankiness was due less to intellectual dishonesty than a failure to move the discussion forward.

    after that conversation, I turned the mirror on myself (hypocrite lecteur) and saw I was guilty of my own intellectual laziness. ( I changed the way I use posterous (now migrated to tumblr) to improve delineation between what I learned and what I added. even the links I send on twitter now are more transparent and prefaced with the original source.

    social is a mainstream destination now, and we are at the docks as the tourists get off the boat. they don’t know the nuggets we’re hocking as newly minted might be goods there was nobody around to buy a year ago. the ideas are new to new audiences, but they are rarely unique. I want to keep discovery alive along with those who brought me this far. since nietzsche has been played, I would that we continue becoming who we are.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for the comment, Todd.

    I’m also finding myself more and more frustrated with links I find on Twitter that are essentially huge chunks of other people’s content. I do my best to hunt down the original and link to that instead.

  5. Sandy Gerber says:

    You might think that posting someone else’s content on your blog is doing the other bloggers a service by sharing their content with your readers. However, this is just setting yourself up to be penalized by Google for duplicate content. It is always better to write original content, with references and links to related articles.

    The concept of guest posting on other blogs is a good way to get your content onto other blogs- but again, if you post the same article on your own site- that can be considered duplicate content. To be safe, stick with writing original content!

  6. admin says:

    Thanks for the comment, Sandy. I agree that original is the way to go or, if you are going to “curate” content, keep the length of your citation short and link bank to the original.