Friday, March 26, 2010

Who owns your view of the web?

An interesting situation has begun brewing in the USA where Facebook has threatened the creator of a piece of browser-side software that effectively strips out unwanted flotsam and jetsam when users log into their Facebook page.

Apparently, Facebook have their knickers in a knot because they don't want mere users altering the way their webpages look or filtering the data so as to avoid important "messages" that some consider to be unnecessary or spammy.

This situation raises a very important issue...

Do users have the right to change the way that webpages appear on their systems?

For instance, a growing number of savvy websurfers use ad-blocking software to rid themselves of the tiring and annoying menace of garish, flashing, poorly targeted advertising that now runs riot across so many pages.

Likewise, there are many who have opted to install plug-ins that stop Flash applets from automatically running on a page.

In doing this, those users are effectively editing the page they received and it could be argued that in doing so, they're making a derived work -- which (technically) may be illegal under the provisions of the Copyright Act.

So how long before publishers, reliant on ad revenues that ad-blocking software denies them, decide to take action against the companies which make this kind of software?

Could we soon see lawyers gunning for the people who write browser plug-ins in an attempt to get this software withdrawn from the market and restore lost ad-revenues?

And what would happen (for instance) if someone writes a piece of software that accesses webpages and stories from a website like CNN but automatically strips out the advertising and replaces it with its own?

It has largely been agreed that framing webpages constitutes a copyright breach however, what if the framing were done, not by another website but by an application loaded and run by the user?

Do users have the right to use software that effectively creates a "mashup" of the pages they're downloading?

I'm picking that it won't be too long before "mashup" software becomes a powerful force in the way people browse online and the various ad and Flash-blocker plugins are just the start of this.

Let's assume you're the kind of person who likes to voice your opinion on the news stories of the day, and also like to read the opinions of others...

Wouldn't you just love a piece of software (perhaps a browser plug-in) that automatically added a box which let you comment on the contents of any page you access on the web? The same software would also display all the comments made by others who chose to air their opinions about what they found on that page. In effect, it would add a discussion forum to any website that users chose to use it with. Most worrying for the website publishers would be that the discussion forum and its contents, although intimately tagged to their content, would be totally beyond their control or administration and they wouldn't make a cent of revenue from the leverage that was gained from their content by the operator of the forums server.

If the forums server operator placed ads alongside user comments, the publisher of the original website content itself would see not a bean of that money, even though it was the catalyst for he discussions and ad-revenues that resulted.

Sounds like a plan doesn't it?

But what about the legalities?

The company that runs the forum-server and provides the software is not doing anything wrong -- it's the user who iss creating a new "derived" page through a mashup of the original webpage and the related forum page -- the software is simply providing a framework by which they can do this.

I seem to recall that this kind of thing has been done before, in the early days of the Net when a piece of software was launched that allowed you to effectively place "post-it" notes on any webpage you liked. Other users of the same software would display those postit notes whenever they visited a site that had been "noted".

The system died out through lack of interest -- but I suspect the Net is a far different place today and such a plug-in could become a runway success. It could even be highly profitable -- the software writer earning revenues from the ads which could be placed in the forum-window.

Legal? Ethical? Or just plan clever thinking?

I guess it all depends on which side of the fence you sit.

Once a webpage is on our computer, do we have a right to change it -- so long as we don't republish that altered version?

A good (and very important) question, isn't it?

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