Quote of the week: "Certainly, we've been surprised at the rapidity of the Web's acceptance. That's caused us to change our plans somewhat." [Rich Tong, NT marketing manager for Microsoft as quoted in this week's Information Week story]

This week it seems as if every trade magazine, and even USA Today and the NY Times, is carrying the theme of Microsoft vs. the Internet. You know how much the press loves a two-sided battle. Many of the numerous articles that ran this week have tended to examine the issues around extensions to HTML that Microsoft is doing vs. "everyone else." While important, much of this coverage is missing another very important point.

What got me going was viewing a videotape of the Gates Comdex keynote, In an accompanying film, we saw various actors surfing the net to obtain documents, copying information and downloading all sorts of stuff. This brings up the issue of whether or not one has permission to do this.

Turns out that Microsoft is one of the largest buyers of stock photos (these are ones not taken for any particular assignment, but are available categorized by subject, such as pictures of Thailand street scenes or racing cars). According to Carrie Seglin, media manager for Microsoft and quoted in the November Photo District News trade magazine, the company has used more than 500 different sources of photographs and can buy more than 250,000 photos in a six month period. When Microsoft first started buying up stock images, they were their usual hard-hearted lawyerly selves, and even asked photographers to sign non-disclosures on what people were being paid! That feeling of distrust is still present in the photo community, and the issue of what rights makes sense for digital uses is still up for debate. Why is this a problem?

Mainly due to the tangled web we webmasters are weaving. Just a click of the mouse, or a few commands, and you can download some data, most likely copyrighted by someone else. So, okay, maybe copying a .GIF that is clearly someone else's image isn't a good idea. But what about putting a link to that .GIF from your site? Standard operating procedure -- indeed these links are what give the web its power and allure.

If you put a link to my site, should you get my permission? Legally, no, since the work remains on my site. Ethically, it would be nice to hear from you. And it works both ways: I should ask before putting up a link to your site. I'll admit, I've been very sloppy about notifying the original sites about links on mine.

These links can be career-limiting, as Bob Fournier, the former webmaster at Kmart, found out last month. He put a link from Kmart's home page to his, and people objected to that. (The story ran in 11/20/95 issue of Computerworld.)

As a digression, the Kmart story brings up an important situation for journalists, too -- direct access to the same data that we use to write our stories. CW published links to both sides of the story, the webmaster's site which reviews the events leading up to Fournier's dismissal, and Kmart's current page which doesn't mention anything about the problem. Now you, the reader, can go directly to the primary sources and judge for yourself.

The Fournier situation represents the first time I've heard of anyone getting fired for putting in a hyperlink to their own site. I started to think about my own legal liability, and what I found wasn't pretty.

Publish With Perplexed Permissions: A Tale of Copyright and the Web

When I first started up my own web site, I decided to assemble all my previously published works over the past three years and put them on the site. Now, I've written for about a dozen different publications, most frequently for Infoworld and Forbes' ASAP. I didn't realize what a mess I was getting myself into. In a word, I became an outlaw. I consider myself a fairly moral and ethical carbon-based life form. But with web publishing, I found myself on shaky ground.

The problem is that figuring out what is "right" and "wrong" in a strict legal sense is difficult, because web copyright law is just coming together. Not to mention the fact that few editors, publishers, and writers understand the whole picture.

Initially on my site I published my own first drafts of the articles. I did this for two reasons: one, I had electronic copies of the first drafts and with some help could turn them into HTML. (I didn't have the electronic published versions.) Second, I was under the (now mistaken impression) that I owned this form of my work and could "reprint" it (as it were) on my own site.

It was a nice idea, but flawed. I have different arrangements with each magazine publisher as part of my freelance contracts. The fine print on these contracts is worded differently but can be grouped into three basic categories:

  1. I had all rights to my work, still. According to my lawyer friends, a writer owns the copyright until s/he grants it to someone else. You can grant reproduction rights for one medium or all media. For some magazines, I never signed away my copyright.

  2. For some publications, I had some rights, including the right to republish my own work electronically for my own purposes. I interpreted these kinds of agreements in that I could put up my own drafts on my web site. That isn't entirely clear, and some of my publishers objected to this and to the fact that my site had different logos. After a friendly call to one magazine's editor-in- chief, we agreed that I'd replace my drafts and dorky-looking logo with the real McCoys (the right logo and the actually published articles), as soon as I got both of them from the magazine.

  3. I had granted all copyright to the publisher, and basically was out of luck. For these situations, I needed to obtain permission to use my work (even though they own it) on my site. With one publisher, all this took was an exchange of email and I was in the clear.

Are you still with me? After all of these exchanges, I wanted to do the right thing with my photograph that appears on several of my web pages. Here the situation was murkier: Infoworld had originally paid the photographer Jay Blakesberg to take all the columnists' photos for their magazine, back when I was a weekly columnist for them. I had purchased paper reprints for my own purposes directly from Jay. But what about using the scanned image on my site? Shouldn't I pay for that? Shouldn't Infoworld for using the photos on their web site? And what about if someone else decided to copy my electronic image on their sites? What a mess!

Photographers are a bit touchy about this, as you can imagine. Jay tells me that he gets around $125 or so for each photo, per web site, which seems reasonable to me. Jay's photos are on this web site)

Where do we draw the line, between what is permissible and what isn't? Geez, I really don't know anymore. Being a human of high moral fiber is becoming a high-maintenance operation, and requiring talmudic precision that I really don't have the necessary training, time, or inclination. I just want to write the words and be paid. It is looking more and more likely that I was going to have to hire someone to just become the Strom Inc. Rights and Permissions department.

Where will this lead? As I see it, if authors and other content- creators can't come to terms with their editors and publishers, we are basically giving many lawyers full employment status for years to come. A new media lawyer friend of mine, Jonathan Ezor, at Davis & Gilbert in New York City says "we can either have a short conversation now or a longer conference later." Personally, I'd rather pay bit heads to do the code than lawyers, no offense Jonathan. This whole thing is a real mess, and unless you have a copy of US Code's copyright law handy, you may be in for some surprises if you intend to publish your work on the web.

Stay tuned. And before you make a copy of this story, drop me a line, please. You might also want to check out Mike Franks' The Internet Publishing Handbook" for a good list of other copyright information resources on the net.

Moving on to what's new and our latest awards

In Web Informant #3, I mentioned the notion of the end of the era of openness for the Internet. The kind folks that run CMP's Techweb site asked me to expand upon those ideas and have published an essay there to stimulate discussion of the topic in their "Marketspace" column. And quite apropos, given this week's theme of everyone vs. Microsoft. Read about the end of an open Internet on Techweb and feel free to post your own comments on CMP's site.

Also, in light of our topic this week on rights and permissions is a site that gets our Big Duck award. Genigraphics Presenter's Resource Center has lots of links to quotable quotes, clip art, sound and video clips and more. I have no idea whether they have all the rights and permissions to this stuff, but the resources assembled is noteworthy. And you can even order a LCD projection panel for next-day delivery, should you be on the road without one.

I've been busy making other changes to the site, including a new home page and adding some new links in the "places" section. And, if you are going to be at the Web Conference in Boston next week, let's try to get together.

David Strom

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Web Informant site

An archive of my previous essays may be found here