What To Do About Excerpting Online?

What To Do About Excerpting Online?
Arts & Culture
Scott Lachut, PSFK Labs
  • 9 march 2009

On the heels of PSFK’s attendance at “Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy,” hosted by the New York Public Library, we see the “fair use” debate moving further into the online space to tackle the sticky issue of “primary source excerpting.” The question at the center of the discussion being -when a site like ours republishes original content, regardless of whether or not credit is given, is the law being broken? 

In theory, the fluid nature of information exchange on the internet through links and credits is supposed to be beneficial for all parties. Of course, not everyone is going to take the time to click through to find the original source, but enough do to make the system work well enough – until now. Prior to the recent economic woes, most traditional media outlets – newspapers, magazines etc. – welcomed the republication of their material onto other websites, viewing it as an opportunity to attract wider audiences and convert that increased traffic into bigger ad revenues. But with this income drying up, are content producers going to start guarding their material more closely?

If that answer becomes yes, then the interpretation of the law becomes even more important. The current guidelines are vague at best and applicable on a case by case basis only.  They hinge on notions of intent – commercial vs. educational – long term value – is the copyrighted material losing out on any potential market? – and perhaps the most difficult determiner, the amount being borrowed versus the whole – there is no line in the sand as it were.  

And while the law struggles to keep pace with the constantly changing online environment, we see an ad hoc system of rules and regulations taking shape in an effort to maintain this unspoken truce of give and take. The Editor-in-Chief of The Business Insider, Henry Blodget, had this to say in an article addressing the controversy, “We excerpt others the way we hope others will excerpt us,” favoring a situation where content can appear in “their own words” as opposed to the case of a synopsis where original ideas might be skewed. This ”golden rule” approach might not be a perfect model given its inherent ambiguity, but it certainly is as good a place as to start as any. Arianna Huffington, whose own site recently came under fire for appropriating content wholesale, added this quote in the NY Times, “we excerpt to add value,” presumably referring to not only driving page views, but also furthering the larger conversation.

This last point might be the most interesting – and one that often comes up when mentioning work by visual artists like Shepard Fairey, Andy Warhol and Richard Prince – but is equally relevant to the written word as well. Although it doesn’t resolve the dilemma outright, the concept of “adding value” at least provides one concrete reason behind why careful excerpting – which is just another form of sharing after all – might be a necessary evil to growing our collective ideas online. And while immediacy and total access might be what truly separates the web from print media, we need to make sure we advance these powerful aspects responsibly.

We’d welcome your thoughts on this topic as we do our best to contribute our own good ideas and provide a forum for them to be discussed.      

NY Times: Copyright Challenge for Sites That Excerpt

[image via HASTAC]

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