Copyright and the right to link
One of the most fundamental things about the web is that you can link any page to any other page, right? Yeah, we kind of thought that too...
But the business model of iCopyright sort of blows that theory out of the window.
The company provides copyright-protection services to online publishers, such as an automated, web-based system for securing the right to re-print material.
That sounds fair enough. Except that included within the iCopyright service is a section that deals with payments for linking. In other words, you publish something online and you pay iCopyright to maintain a permanent URL to the article for you. They will only give out that URL to people who pay a fee.
If all this sounds familiar, it's because it came to light in recent weeks that the Albuquerque Journal was a client of iCopyright, and was effectively asking people to pay for the right to create links to articles on the newspaper's web site.
According to the coverage from Wired News, it was not immediately clear whether or not the Journal editorial staff realised what they were asking users to pay, just to create a link.
But WriteTheWeb attempted to re-use a story URL from that same day, which now gives a 404 - Page Not Found error, suggesting that story pages at the site are temporary.
In an effort to better understand what's going on, we asked if iCopyright would answer some questions - which they have done, via email.
We started off asking: What kind of customer is iCopyright trying to attract? Online publishers? Or is the scope wider than that?
iCopyright replied: The iCopyright.com technology is set up to support both online and offline publishers. Our main focus is publishers that realize the value of their content and are pursuing a new revenue stream.
WtW: How do you make money? Do your customers pay a subscription or license fee, or do you take a cut of each transaction made via your service?
iCopyright: Revenue split between the publisher and iCopyright.com is our source of income. The user pays a licensing fee to reuse the article. There is no subscription fee to use iCopyright.
WtW: Do you think it is fair to charge anyone to link to a web page?
iCopyright: The publisher determines what will be licensed and what will be charged.
WtW: Do you agree that charging for links goes against the grain of everything that the internet is about?
iCopyright: The Internet has opened the proverbial Pandora's Box, causing content owners to lose significant control of their work; iCopyright.com helps content providers protect their rights, while making it easy for consumers to pay for the content they use.
Comment from WtW: that didn't really answer our question...
WtW: Would you say that charging for the right to link to a page will result in fewer links to that page?
iCopyright: Not if people feel they get value for the link. People want persistence and reliability of their content. That's why our formatted Web reprint is so popular. The Web reprint carries the publishers branding and name recognition with the content to help validate, educate and promote the company in the article and it's available 24/7 to the reader.
WtW: Which do you believe is more important for online publishers: trying to get more readers to their sites, or trying to protect their copyright interests?
iCopyright: We believe both are important to them. Getting people to your site and providing content that is relevant and interesting is what the name of the game is. And of course, content rights holders should be paid for their work, or soon there will be no writers like you.
WtW: Finally, how can you police this service? Do you have access to your clients' referrer logs, so that you can identify the location of incoming links?
iCopyright: We are not the police. We believe that companies understand they have to purchase the property to use it. That is the law and there are penalties for violating copyright law. We encourage people to do the right thing. We make it convenient, efficient and fast for users to get what they need, and to do it legally.
While it was good of iCopyright to take the time to answer our questions, we can't help feeling they avoided the issue we wanted to deal with.
No-one can deny that creators of orginal content want to protect their interest in it, and as we've discussed many times on this site before, there are all sorts of differing opinions about how to do that online.
But it seems crazy to imply that linking to a web page equates to re-using the content in the same way that you would be re-using it by taking a photocopy, or cutting-and-pasting the text and inserting it into a new publication.
iCopyright claims that its Web reprints carry the publisher's branding and name recognition with the content to help validate, educate and promote the company in the article and it's available 24/7 to the reader. Well, doesn't *any* sensible online publisher do this anyway, with the help of a simple logo and a URL that remains permanent for each and every article?
Finally, from a user's point of view, it would seem to us that any web site that *discourages* links (can you imagine a lot of bloggers linking to a great story if they each had to pay 50 dollars to do so?) will simply end up discouraging traffic.
And you'd think people paying money to advertise on such a site would have something to say about that, wouldn't you?