Links are lifeblood of the web - unauthorised use of content is not


OPINION:The internet is a vast engine for dialogue. Urls keep it that way

In the early 1960s a Harvard graduate student named Ted Nelson developed the idea of “hypertext”, a system of digitised links between tidbits of information that would transcend the limitations of printed paper.

The idea was wildly ambitious. A user could click various links within documents to pursue particular veins of information. But, unlike the web as we know it today, Nelson envisaged that each page would have multiple versions, annotations, and contain live snippets of other pages to which it “hyperlinked”. In addition, each document would integrate “rights management”, enabling authors and publishers to take small payments from the reader as the reader passed between different sources.

Nelson’s vision was too ambitious and failed to deliver. Instead, hypertext went on a different route. One that entailed a system of free links, without rights management.

Hypertextual leap

In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee developed what became known as the world wide web. His www had little of the sophistication of Nelson’s vision. But it worked. Berners-Lee’s innovation was based on the principle that “a hypertext link (url) can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished”. The web in its present form could not have materialised without free and open urls.

For the first two years, the web’s initial growth was slow, and it was limited to research communities whose powerful Unix machines were capable of displaying it. Finally in 1993 a legal researcher produced “Cello”, the first web browser for the pc. From this point on, the web began to spread beyond research and academia. In 1994, The Irish Times embraced the web and became the first newspaper in Ireland and the UK, and one of the first handful in the world, to launch an online edition.

The online edition empowered readers in 1994 instantly to recommend articles of interest to their friends by way of a url. Berners-Lee noted in 1997, “The intention in the design of the web was that normal links should simply be references.” In the same vein, linking (without republication or reproduction of the content being linked to) is promoted on every article published on The Irish Times’s urls are free to roam the web, as they should be.

In recent days, a controversy has arisen about licensing and linking. It is right public interest should be drawn to these matters. However, mere linking of irishtimes.comcontent is not at issue.

Linking versus reproduction

A clear separation of the benign issue of “linking to” content from the more fraught issue of “reproduction of” content is required to allow the copyright debate to proceed on the correct footing.

What writers at The Irish Times, in common with their colleagues at newspapers across the globe, take issue with is the unlicensed reproduction of their newspaper’s content for commercial gain.

A newspaper must be able to protect itself from the outright copying of its content and from the harvesting of its writers’ reporting by automated summarisation and aggregation engines for the commercial benefit of private interests in cases where its authorisation has not been sought.

While the public increasingly believes it has an interest in financially supporting the long-term future of insightful reporting, some commercial businesses have not yet adopted this position.

Conflating the unlicensed reproduction of content with the mere use of urls is drawing attention from the key issues of the copyright debate.

As Tim Berners-Lee envisaged, urls are merely references to content. But they are more: they are the lifeblood of online dialogue.

* Johnny Ryan is chief innovation officer of The Irish Times and author of A History of the Internet and the Digital Future (2010). Twitter: @johnnyryan

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