You Own Your Own Words
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You Own Your Own Words... Copyright (c) 1992 Jon Lebkowsky <[email protected]> This article originally appeared in Volume 2 Number 3 of Matrix News, the monthly paper newsletter of Matrix Information and Directory Services, Inc. (MIDS). It is copyright by its author. For further information, contact the author or MIDS: Matrix News Matrix Information & Directory Services, Inc. (MIDS) [email protected] +1-512-329-1087 fax: +1-512-327-1274 Building 2 Suite 300 1120 South Capitol of Texas Highway Austin, TX 78746 U.S.A. The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL) is a conferencing system based in Sausalito, California which serves a diverse group of users who pay a monthly subscription fee plus an hourly rate to participate in conferences on a wide range of subjects. Conference subjects include technology, literature, travel, religion and mysticism, music, art, and sexuality. The evolution of online personal and professional relationships for users of the system is such that they often refer to it as a community, and sometimes hold ad hoc "public meetings" within conferences wherein issues of concern are discussed and debated. One such debate concerns the issue of intellectual property, referred to by the acronym YOYOW ("You Own Your Own Words"), a phrase used in a disclaimer prominently displayed at login: You own your own words. This means that you are responsible for the words that you post on the WELL and that reproduction of those words without your permission in any medium outside of the WELL's conferencing system may be challenged by you, the author. This disclaimer was authored by Stewart Brand, a founder of the WELL, who now says "I wish I had written you *are responsible* for your own words." Brand feels that the word "own" is taken far too seriously by some of the WELL's subscribers. It does have a different connotation than "responsible," implying possession and control. [Brand 1992] The WELL has fielded several discussions and flames on the topic of intellectual property in an electronic forum. WELL policy on "word ownership" is unclear, despite the login message, because in a community environment a directive from management needs the support of user consensus to be effective. In the politically diverse WELL community. which seems to have polarized over the issue, consensus is hard to reach. In March 1991 L. Brett Glass, a WELL user, complained that his words had been "ported to another forum" without his prior consent. The forum in question, the "WELL Screenzine Digest" (usually called "Zine"), is a conference which combines material gleaned from the 180+ public conferences on the system with new comments. When a conferee's words are quoted in this digest, (s)he is mailed notification, including a note on how to get the quote deleted if its reproduction is not okay. Glass was concerned that his words had been quoted in Zine though permission for the quote was not solicited in advance. "No one has any right to reproduce material on which I own copyright...this is not only technically illegal but fundamentally unethical." [Glass 1991] This contention raises questions of concern to users of various telecommunications systems on the Internet and elsewhere: 1) Are posts to a conference of this kind, or to bulletin board systems or other systems for electronic discourse, covered by current copyright law? Many of the participants in this particular discussion took it for granted that any written communication is automatically granted copyright protection. 2) If such communications are not protected by copyright, should they be? 4) How binding is the WELL's login message? What remedy does it imply (it doesn't imply that appropriation of words without permission is actionable, but that it may be "challenged," whatever that might mean). Ethically speaking, if you have signed on to the WELL and are cognizant of the attitude of at least some of its users, reproduction of conferences electronically or on paper would be "politically incorrect" whatever the legalities might be. However the applicability of copyright law to the ongoing conversation in conferences is at least questionable. Copyright was created not so much to protect individuals from having their words or thoughts ripped off as to enhance and encourage creative expression by ensuring *authors* ownership of their *works*. The question in the case of a conferencing system like the WELL is whether the more casual expressions therein qualify as "authored works." As John Quarterman suggests, the answer is probably that "...some do and some don't. Some of my longer responses to questions are essays that turn into articles, and I suspect others do the same." He refers to an article in Matrix News that is "an extremely lightly edited conversational posting. Did the half dozen minor changes I made (with the author's approval) turn it into a literary work? Or was it one when it was originally posted in a mailing list?" [Quarterman 1992] Those works specifically protected, according to section 102a of current copyright law, are 1) literary works; 2) musical works, including any accompanying words; 3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music; 4) pantomimes and choreographic works; 5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works; 6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works; and 7) sound recordings. The postings in an online conference, if taken as a form of conversation, would not seem to fall into any of the above categories. The invocation of copyright law as a basis for contesting the duplication of online conversation would, in that case, be inappropriate. It is therefore critical for us to question whether some template can be applied to determine whether a written communication is a literary or "authored" work in line with the intent of copyright law. "Copyright law came about in part out of a sense of fairness to authors. But it also has developed under a rationale, the one principally relied on in the United States today, that society benefits from authors' efforts, that it is in our interest to provide a system that encourages them, and that an appropriate system is one that gives them property rights in the works they create." [Johnston 1982] Given this interpretation, the question is whether various participants in online discussion are creating "works," and, more important, whether "property rights" with regard to this form of communication will provide encouragement. In this context, we should consider that authors as early as the 18th century tested their ideas in letters to other authors, friends, and acquaintances. These letters, when collected and published, are considered to be literary works in their own right. How do letters and public posts within a computer network differ? [Quarterman 1992] It is true that the "property" to which copyright law applies has become less tangible with the evolution of information technologies. When you copy a book, words on paper, you have copied a tangible, solid object which can be reproduced only by, and within the constraints of, mechanical means. Digital reproduction differs in important ways. A digital copy is identical to a digital original; its widespread duplication and proliferation over the networks is difficult to control. Digital data is quickly and cheaply manipulated, so that it is sometimes difficult to discern where the originator's rights end and the manipulator's begin. Finally, "the ease with which users can copy, reformat, or transmit a digitized work engenders the notion, whether right or wrong, that they should not have to pay a royalty every time they transfer it from one medium to another or share it with another user." [Wright 1989] Though changes to copyright law are inevitable in a digital context, its intent, the protection of "authored works," will likely remain the same. The WELL's login message may be seen as a contract among users, though it is not clear what legal remedy a user might seek if his words were ported to "another medium outside the WELL." In Brett Glass's case, words were ported to another medium *within* the WELL, and the issue was, in this author's opinion, more of ethics than law. Even copyright law allows, in its Fair Use limitation, the excerpting or quoting of an author's works (though the Berne convention protects, among other author's rights, the right to approve the context of a quote). Copyright law clearly has limitations; it is not intended to protect any and every expression. But where legal code does not specifically apply, moral law still has jurisdiction. In exploring this issue, and in considering legal and ethical concerns in the context of the Matrix, I hear a phrase from an old Bob Dylan song: "...to live outside the law, you must be honest." This is more to the point: in a system like the WELL, and throughout the Matrix, given the lack of legal precedent and the sense of benign anarchy, can we be "honest?" Can we be conscientious enough to resolve differences before they become issues of law? References Brand 1992. Brand, Stewart, EFF conference on the WELL, topic 291, response #1, 13 January 1992; also personal communications. Glass 1991. Glass, Brett, EFF conference on the WELL, topic 156, 19 March 1991. Johnston 1982. Johnston, Donald F., _Copyright Handbook_, pp. 226- 27. R.R. Bowker Company, New York, NY 1982. Quarterman 1992. Quarterman, John S., personal communication, 13 March 1992. Wright 1989. Wright, Benjamin, J. D., "Computer Mediated Communication and the Law," Appendix B to Quarterman, John, _The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide_, pp. 646-647. Digital Press, Bedford, MA 1989. For information on the WELL, call 415-332-4335 (weekdays 9-5 PST). To register online, call 415-332-6106 (2400 baud). The WELL is accessible through the Internet ([email protected]) and CPN (Host: WELL).