Protecting Pictures

We got a ton of email this week concerning my column about Leslie Kelly, “The Dumbest Lawsuit in Web History.” (Discussion of the issue is continuing on the ClickZ Forum and I encourage you all to join it.)

As of this writing, however, nearly all the comment has gone against me.

Danny Sullivan of wrote one of the longer, more thoughtful notes, saying that I “made wide ranging and incorrect statements that trivialized the real concerns that artists have” and dismissed a lawsuit “that has real implications for all web site owners, not just artists.” He went on to say that firewalls are impractical, and that while digital watermarks might identify stolen art, it doesn’t prevent the theft.

Other critics weren’t so kind – the words “unforgivable,” “shameful” and “travesty” were all used. (Here’s a surprise – no one used words that couldn’t be repeated in a family newspaper. Give yourselves a hand for that!) The fact is the column hit a nerve. So let’s examine this pain and see what it means.

In his “Project Xanadu,” a hypertext project that pre-dated the web by 20 years, Ted Nelson made protection of intellectual property rights a key feature. Nelson has also developed a format called “transpublishing” designed to protect both links and property rights online.

Unfortunately, Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web took form in the academic environment of CERN, where sharing is essential, and the penalty for theft is merely exile from the community. The commercial web has no such penalty, and not everyone shares CERN’s academic values. So lots of people look to make money off others’ intellectual resources.

When I wrote of Kelly’s lawsuit, I equated it to the enjoining of links, and said his success would make the web illegal. Over the last few years many companies have tried to prevent free linking, and each attempt has made me angrier. Whether the attempt was made by Ticketmaster, Universal Studios or eBay, my response was always the same – if you don’t want people linking to your stuff, take it off the public web.

Several asked how I would feel if someone stole my articles, or my entire web site, spreading my stuff for their profit. In fact this type of theft is fairly common, and site owners feel especially victimized when someone in another country “site-jacks” them. The question is, Does hosting pictures on its own web site make a “site-jacker”? Personally, I don’t think so. I have yet to find an image on that was large enough to be commercial in and of itself. If you right-click your mouse button on any web image, one of the standard options is to download it (or turn it into screen wallpaper). It’s been that way for five years – I haven’t seen Mr. Kelly’s suit against Microsoft and Netscape.

Now, there are ways to protect against that right click. The problem is these protections aren’t intuitive, and it seems to many people that you can’t get the protection without limiting the distribution of knowledge that makes the web work. Tomorrow I’ll bring in a leading expert to propose another solution to the problem.

Related reading