Over on Electrolite, Patrick has posted a rich, full-bodied denunciation of a new NPR policy:
According to Boing Boing, National Public Radio demands that you request permission before linking to any portion of their web site.(Go read the whole thing, and keep an eye on the links.)Linking to or framing of any material on this site without the prior written consent of NPR is prohibited.And to think that after I appeared on All Things Considered on April 17, 2002 to talk about the late Damon Knight, I thoughtlessly linked to their Real Audio file of the interview. Right here on Electrolite, I linked to NPR’s Real Audio file of my interview. And all that time it was “prohibited”! Imagine that.
Please use this form to request permission to link to npr.org and its related sites.
Of course, it isn’t “prohibited.” Or rather, it’s “prohibited” with exactly the same legal force as I have when I say “False legal claims designed to intimidate the public are hereby prohibited. Signed, Me.” …
To me, it seems like this issue should be fairly straightforward. Say you put up a publicly accessible website. It has your own copyrighted material on it, which probably isn’t a single coherent unitary work.
Now say someone links to an article on one of your pages. The material referenced by the link is still on your website. It has not been copied to some other site. The link itself is on the other guy’s site, and your own site is not altered by its existence. The link just tells browsers how to get to your article; and if your website is publicly accessible—in a word, published—that information is not a secret.
Where in all that is there anything that requires permission?
The essential nature of a link is that it says “Here is where to find this.” That is not a new thing, and it shouldn’t be an occasion for new law.
The obvious analogy is to footnotes. The person who creates a footnote is saying, “There’s material relevant to my point in another work by someone else; here’s where to find it, and” (optionally) “here’s a bit of the pertinent passage.” This is an utterly established practice, couldn’t be more established if it tried; and it doesn’t require anyone’s permission. A website link differs only in that it lets your browser take you there directly, instead of giving you cryptically abbreviated instructions on how to find it in a library; which is a simply a matter of speed and convenience, not a change in the essential action.
Another analogy would be to program listings and reviews in brief. I see in the Yahoo TV listings that at 9:30 this morning channel 68 (WFUT) showed the 19 July ‘99 episode of Isabel, Mujer Enamorada, and in this week’s New Yorker that the Brooklyn Museum of Art is hosting the “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” exhibit through July 7. Both these listings are accompanied by descriptions, and I’m absolutely certain that neither required the permission of WFUT or the BMA before they could be published. And if the New Yorker had an online edition and the BMA listing included a link to the BMA’s website, I’m still absolutely certain that no permission would be required. Computerizing an everyday action doesn’t make it a different action.
When you broadcast or publish something, you make it public, and the fact that you have done so is public information. Once it’s out there, you don’t have control over the way people approach it. They can reference it, describe it, praise it or blame it, and quote bits of it by way of illustrating their points, just as they please. This is Fair Use, seen here (for once) in its native habitat. It’s also freedom of speech. It’s the public discourse. It’s what NPR used to stand for.
There’s another point that’s so far been overlooked in the general furor, which is that NPR’s attempts at control go beyond requiring permission to link to their pages. Here’s a link to their Request permission to link to NPR form, in case you want to follow along. In fact, here’s A WHOLE BUNCH OF LINKS TO IT, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . BWAH-HA-HAH! . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . So there!
Their form begins, “Linking to or framing of any material on this site without the prior written consent of NPR is prohibited.” This is wishful thinking, but they’re counting on people taking it to mean “prohibited by law”; which on the one hand is simply not true, and then again on the other hand is a shabby, disingenuous piece of weaseling.
The form then asks for your name, e-mail address, phone number, home page URL, the URL of the page on which the reference will appear, and the NPR content that will be linked from the page. They ought not be asking at all, but it’s still just information about the link.
But the next thing they ask for is the “Proposed wording of the link and accompanying text”, and that is plain flat-out none of their business. We are not in the world of reprint permissions here. This is the universe of public discourse, and I’m hard-pressed to see that question as anything but an attempt at prior restraint.
Next they want to know how long the link will be up, and whether you’ll be using the NPR logo in connection with it. These questions make me wonder whether an earlier version of this document originated in their publicity department, but they aren’t otherwise interesting.
The last section, “Information about the entity that controls the Web site”, is a gross imposture. It’s one thing to put a questionnaire on the web that asks for more information than people really ought to give. Most people won’t, and some will; but asking is within the rules. It’s another thing for NPR to ask for data that is not theirs to demand, under the clearly implied but wholly false representation that they can deny permission to link to their site to anyone who fails to furnish it.
This information includes: The controlling entity’s formal name. Their mailing address. Please describe the entity’s principal activities. Is this entity a[n] individual, partnership (give the full name of at least one General Partner), for-profit corporation (incorporated in which state?), not-for-profit corporation (ditto), government agency, or other (please specify)? Contact information for the person who will maintain the link: full name, e-mail address, phone, fax.
No kidding, suckers? Give me the password for your webmaster’s personal e-mail account plus a map showing the location of all his cool toys, and maybe I’ll tell you. I don’t think they asked Patrick for that much info when they had him on All Things Considered. I know for sure they didn’t tell him that he couldn’t link to his own words from his own webpage without their prior written consent.