Thursday, August 9, 2007

What Really Matters on the Internet

I take a certain amount of delight when even the most polished of Internet evangelists can be brought down by the dead moose on the table that is pornography. Whether it involves what middle-aged men are really up to in Second Life or what the biggest Google search requests really are, even the more learned efforts to study the impact of the Internet on society turn depressingly myopic when questions about pornography arise. On the other hand everyone seems interested in litigation, so there is nothing like a good lawsuit to remind us that the moose is still on the table. This was made apparent by a brief report by Jeremy Kirk, of the IDG News Service, which just appeared on the InfoWorld Web site, short enough to be reproduced in its entirety:

A publisher of nude model photography is suing Microsoft for putting links and images of the company's content in search results taken from other Web sites that are illegally reproducing the material.

The company, Perfect 10, previously filed similar suits seeking injunctions against Google and over alleged copyright infringement.

The latest suit alleges that Microsoft's MSN image search feature creates unauthorized thumbnails of content owned by Perfect 10 and includes links to see a full-size versions of the images for free. The suit also says that Microsoft's MSN search engine makes passwords available to the company's Web site.

Microsoft also takes advertising money from Web sites that have stolen Perfect 10 images, and provides links to Web sites that offer passwords for Perfect 10's services, according to the lawsuit. The companies could not be immediately reached for comment.

Personally, I wish Perfect 10 all the best in their effort to find just the right stone to bring down Goliath. There seems to be an unwritten "law of Internet culture" to the effect that "if you can link to it, you can use it," which is sort of the latter-day version of the rule of thumb that you can make a photocopy of anything that fits on the glass of your copy machine. The older problem resolved itself more through standards of normative behavior than through court battles over property rights. This new case, on the other hand, may involve challenging what has become a normative practice; so its consequences are likely to be very interesting. I suspect the resolution may come down to recognizing the difference between the Internet serving us the way public libraries have traditionally served us and the Internet enabling us to create personal libraries through a path that ignores any compensation to the "authors" (in the most general sense of the term) of the material in those libraries. Mark Stefik tried to address this matter in "Letting Loose the Light," one of the pioneering essays on digital rights management; but his thoughts were overshadowed by the more technical content of that essay concerned with how property rights could be represented in a form suitable for digital processing. Perfect 10 may be providing the opportunity to shift this issue from an academic exercise to a question of normative practices in the real world of electronic commerce.

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