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Authorship and the Web

On a worldwide web where anybody can post anything any time (unless they live in a place like China, but that’s a subject for another post), how can we identify original content? How much does proper attribution matter?

There’s a whole parasitic industry of taking other people’s content and manipulating it to draw hits and bring in income from advertising. (The essence of this kind of work is not high percentage yield but just sheer volume, so they are avaricious for content.) For example, a few weeks ago someone stole my article on if historical figures had been webmasters and posted it as if it were their own work, without any attribution or acknowledgment of my authorship. In the on-line world such copying has become so common as to seem trivial. Even entire sites may be duplicated.

Consider a couple of examples from just the past few days. First, at SEOmoz a scraper included in a post making fun of her an e-mail from a woman who felt she had been wronged. The e-mail was only removed on advice of counsel. Following up on this, Graywolf made a couple of posts on his popular SEO blog that were designed to manipulate search engine results to punish the woman (SEOEgghead spoke up on her behalf).

Did the woman have a legitimate complaint? Does she have a right to “own” search results on her name and business, or are they fair game for anyone to use as they wish?

In another current case a columnist for the Daily Telegraph posted a column that was pulled word for word from a blogger’s entry. (No explanation yet from the paper or the columnist.)

According to the Berne convention, “Independently of the author’s economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work.”

Have such rights become merely theoretical? Do they continue to have meaning in a great collective enterprise like the web? Is it inevitable that technology tends to remove content from individual control? I’d love to know your thoughts.

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