Third Voice and Copyright

1999: I received the following email from Larry Rosenstein in response to Hands Off My Site. He raises some good points that those interested in the Third Wave debate should consider.

His letter is printed as received with no further editorial comment.

I don’t like the idea that anyone with the right software can come to my site and leave a note for anyone else using Third Voice.

Phrased this way, it sounds as if they are modifying your site or leaving information on your server. But that’s not the case at all. All Third Voice does is change the way the browser displays web pages, such that they include annotations.

“…stay away or create your own counter-site, but don’t vandalize my pages.”

How can you call it vandalize if none of your data changes. Is it also vandalizing if someone changes their browser to display text in a strange font or turns off graphics?

“I hereby request that Third Voice respect the copyright and integrity of my web site – both the textual content and visual appearance – by blocking any Third Voice user from posting notes….”

The problem with this is that you are making your web pages freely available on the internet. If I download one of your pages, I’m free to do whatever I want with it on my computer. In particular, I don’t have to display it in any particular format or even display it at all.

There are limitations of course. I can’t repost your content, which would be a copyright violation. And I can’t abuse your servers (e.g., making repeated requests), which would be a theft of service. But Third Voice does neither of these things.

A good analogy is broadcast TV. TV stations send out their content freely to anyone who wants to receive it. But after having done so, they cannot prevent someone from taping a show and editing out the commercials when they watch the show. Then can’t even prevent someone from archiving the edited shows and watching them over and over.

If you object to Third Voice changing the way IE presents a web page, then do you object to VCRs that can edit out commercials? How about the ability browsers have to turn off images (including banner ads)? How about a browser for the visually impaired that reads the page. How about a proxy server that summarizes a user-requested page for display on a PDA?

(As an extreme case, consider Virtual PC. It takes a copyrighted Windows program and on the fly translates it into PowerPC code. In some sense this is exactly what Third Voice does.)

While I can understand why webmasters would be against the Third Voice technology, realistically I don’t see how anyone can argue against the technology on legal grounds. Not only isn’t there a copyright violation, but there is also grounds under fair use for people to produce commentary about copyrighted material.

I don’t think the company has any legal or moral obligations to install an opt-out system, although it might be their best interest to do so. Since they manage the storage of annotations, they need to take care of things that are inappropriate. And they should provide a way to see what annotations are attached to a site for people who can’t use their plugin. (Of course the next step is to allow webmaster to request that an annotation be removed, but this raises other issues.)

This is just another example of a brand new issue raised by a brand new technology. And it won’t be the last.

Larry Rosenstein

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