This is my op ed in The Irish Times, 7 January 2013.
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’.
Video: Ted Nelson explains hypertext and hyperlinks in Xanadu (in 2008)
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 it failed to deliver. Instead, hypertext went on a different route. One that entailed a system of free links, without rights management.
In 1990 Tim Berners-Lee developed what become 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 to instantly recommend articles of interest to their friends by way of a URL. Tim 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 re-publication or reproduction of the content being linked to) is promoted on every article published on irishtimes.com. The Irish Times’ URLs are free to roam the Web, as they should be.
In recent days a controversy has focused on the issue of licensing and linking. It is right that public interest should be drawn to these matters. However, mere linking of irishtimes.com content is not at issue. A clear separation of the benign issue of ‘linking to’ content from more fraught issue of ‘reproduction of’ content is required to allow the copyright debate to proceed on the correct footing.
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 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 that 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 when he developed the Web, URLs are merely references to content. But they are also more than that: They are the lifeblood of online dialogue.