posted Aug 17, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Citation. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

One non-copyright-based example of a something that has already been shaken up by resting on a faulty foundation is the academic concept of citing. How do you cite a web page correctly, which could be evanescent by its very nature? Guidelines have of course been set forth by the various style committees (for instance, see the APA Style Guide). But even a specification of a URL and a time stamp is not always sufficient to specify a web page precisely enough for another user to see what is being cited; the page may be personalized to the specific user or even have totally random content, with no way to cause specific content to appear, not to mention the fact that in general you can't roll a webpage back to the state it had at a given date.

The problem here lies of course in that the citation is trying to cite the human-experienced message itself, which is too transient to make a good citation target. In theory, the solution is to cite the specific static content items that they are referencing, including how they were assembled. In reality, that is not feasible, because there is most likely no way to specify the content items directly, let alone how they were assembled.

In the absence of a strong promise to maintain content at certain URLs in perpetuity with a guarantee of no change, a good promise for an online journal to make, the only solution to this problem is for the academic to save their own copy of the web page they wish to reference, and reference their saved copy instead, again using this as a reasonable approximation to saving the human-experienced message. Here we see an example of where fair use ought to be strengthened in the modern environment, because without the right to do this for academic purposes, there is no rational way to cite things on the web. I accept it as axiomatic that we want academic discourse to continue, even over the potential objections of copyright holders.

The need to save archive copies for academic citation implies the technical ability to so save the content. No Digital Restrictions Management system that I've seen pays more then lip service to this. People need the right to convert transient messages into their own concrete representations and archive them, to the extent that it is technically possible.

(OK, I concede that DRM technically stands for "Digital Rights Management", but I'm not just trying to be snarky; I believe that actions speak louder than words, and DRM manifests entirely in the form of actions that restrict the user from doing something. Thus, I do not see calling it "Digital Restrictions Management" as snarky, I see it as honest.)

Of course once that is granted there's every reason to extend that to the general case of requiring that all content people can experience can be relatively easily archived by the recipient for their personal use, and potentially other limited uses such as the aforementioned academic citation use.


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