Creator's Rights

I’m a bit late to the game, but the arguments about Google’s AutoLink continue to fester and I’m feeling inclined to add my opinion. For those just joining us, Dan Gillmor has a decent summary and weighs in against the feature, Dave Winer makes the strident case against, and Kuro5hin summarizes and then plays defense.

I’ve also spent some time during the last week playing with the feature. Kuro5hin is right that it is relatively limited and innocuous in its current manifestation — but relatively is the key word there. To bring up Creative Commons is right on — my issue here is with ownership and permissions. There are essentially two parts to the argument against the feature as it current exists: one is that the creator of the material owns the material, has rights to it, and AutoLink violates those rights because it does not seek permission from the owner. The other argument is that Google is getting to big and might become evil.

What’s fascinating to me is that both Kuro5hin and Kottke dismiss the first argument and accept the second. For me it’s the inverse; I don’t really care about Google as a company and how big they may or may not be. I do care about my ownership of material I create.

Kuro5hin argues that “fiddling with the content is basically what web surfers do” and so it must be okay for google to do it — well, I respectfully disagree. I’d argue that fiddling with content is not “basically what web surfers do” — I’m not even sure that passes the smell test. Web surfers consume content, and many respond to content by creating their own content. They do not modify other people’s content — unless the community is designed to do exactly that, with an explicit permission to do so, like a Wiki. The examples cited to backup the claim that web surfers routinely alter the content of websites include blocking pop-up boxes, using custom stylesheets and — bizarrely — printing hard copies. The trouble is, that’s not content modification. That’s more like user interface modification. What Google’s AutoLink does is actually modify the meaning and purpose of the content that I have created for your consumption — not just the style in which the content is consumed. And it may be just a few “useful” mods right now — zipcodes and ISBN numbers — but I agree with Dave; it’s a slippery slope, precisely because it is content modification.

It’s clear that in the next century, in America, intellectual property is going to be the foundation of wealth creation. What I create, what I say, is of real value to me. Moreover, I consider myself an artist. I’ve licensed my photos under the Creative Commons — but I made the choice to do that, to allow (among other things) my creative work to be altered and shared by the community.

Modification of the content without the creator’s permission strikes me as a serious violation of the creator’s rights. There is a clear solution that solves this problem — let webpages opt-in to Google’s AutoLink through some sort of meta-tag. It’s likely to be very popular, and I’d probably choose it for most of my content. But that’s the key — I’d be choosing it.

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