"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 May 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Legal Unease



The reservoir of content called

the Web is deceptively shallow,

especially when one considers

all those surfers gliding about.

So the obvious direction in

which to siphon art and

information is from the meat

media to the online realm.

Surely, the Web can suck. But a

few savvy hucksters have

realized it can blow, too.



Say you were a media overlord and

a few of your underlings from

various parts of the

conglomerate kept singing the

praises of the Web. But how to

use this thing? Should you dip

into your almost-inexhaustible

store of intellectual property

and send free digital tidbits to

any Internet-connected buffoon

who grunts that simplest

utterance of computer

interaction, the mouse click?

Doesn't sound too bright, since

you can't see how this gets you

money, or anything else useful.

In fact, like everyone else, you

can't see any way the Web could

get you money. But if there is

some worthwhile material online,

why not set up shop and buy

content? You could leverage the

Web just as you've leveraged

everything else. A capital idea,

which lends itself to two

distinct approaches.



The first: Brag about your clever

idea, sing the praises of

selling out and

backwards-repurposing, and

generally be rather circumspect

about what you're planning to

do. Treat your writers and

photographers like freelancers

(you don't even have to treat

them like human beings), and

give them contracts that outline

what they're selling when they

fork over their copy or

negatives. If you're a

burgeoning new media publishing

company, you could buy just the

publication rights. Not all the

derivative rights that let you

make movies and TV shows. Not

the moral rights that let you

claim the work as your own and

omit the photo credit or byline.

Then, your content-generating

personages will at least know

what they're being paid for, and

they, along with those who look

at the content, will be happy.

You might name your site with a

common, suggestive word.



The other way, more suitable for

a true media colossus: Treat the

content-creators - obviously

desperate, starving artists (or

they wouldn't be working on the

Web, right?) - like

ghostwriters. Treat them like

indentured savants who aren't

allowed to own intellectual

property. Purchase all the

publication rights, and every

other kind of right, so you can

do anything with the effluent of

their mind's wellspring, even a

"What's Up, Tiger Lily?" number.

Then you could advertise your

site on TV and prepare to move

the content into new channels,

unbeknownst to the luckless

rubes who sold their work to you

at cut-rate Web prices. You

could name your site something

obscure and inscrutable, but at

the same time suggestive. No one

has to know it's British.



Since some would use the net to

covertly capture content, the

writers and photographers who

ply their trade online should be

scoping out the issues and

looking closely at those slices

of tree they're signing. Those

who contribute to websites as

freelancers could find out, like

the unfortunate organ donor in

Monty Python's The Meaning of

Life, that their

well-intentioned contract will

lead them to be gutted when they

least expect it. The risk, of

course, is only to their

content, not their contents.

Still, artists, photographers,

writers, musicians, and others

who add onto hip webzines should

be wary if contracts assign

unusual rights (say, all of

them, exclusively, forever) to

the site's honchos. Otherwise,

they might leave their heart in

San Francisco, or, more likely,

in Atlanta, in the clutch of

some media monstrosity's Web




It's not only the freelancer cult

that has cause to worry. Since

the Web is two-way (in theory,

at least), everyone can be

exploited, not just those who

are good enough to get

published. Some online services

make it very clear that

postings, chattings, and Web

publications remain the author's

property. Other entities are

more cagey about these user

rights, omitting notice of them,

or sometimes appending one of

their own copyright notices

where it doesn't belong. In the

case of the friendly

neighborhood ISP, this may pose

little danger. But when

telecommunications giants,

big-time corporate alliances,

media companies, national

providers, and even interstate

banks start playing the game,

danger lurks. After all, a

national mogul can purchase a

few twentysomethings, flay them,

and disguise himself in their

skin, Hannibal Lecter-style, in

order to garner more media

grist. So why be surprised if a

helpless-looking website has you

for an intellectual snack and

leaves the fruits of your mind

lifeless in an ambulance - or

stranded in the Satellite of




We like to believe that as long

as we behave ourselves when we

traipse though corporate

chat-space, we can go home and

take the ownership of our

utterances along with us, just

as we would if we conversed with

someone in "real" life. When we

have an in-the-flesh

conversation, after all,

everyone who participates "owns"

the discussion jointly, even if

someone legally ejaculates a

copyright notice to start things

off. Where in the online world

would the behemoths of media get

the idea that they own

everything that happens in their

chatspace? When we have a

conversation facilitated by a

community conferencing system,

or by one of our fave Web mags,

everyone assumes we own our own

words. But when a famous fellow

fraternizes online, the

transcript naturally settles

onto the website. Then, it can

get legally lumped into the same

category as all the other

content - or at least appear

that way. From this, the less

clueful might take their cue.



With particularly attractive

content magnets, who draw in

submissions by means of contests

and other enticements, the

threat to writing rights can be

palpable for the user. Your

non-award-winning anecdote

describing your most

embarrassing sexual experience

may not have earned you any

money. That page of gobbledygook

on the submission form, however,

was telling you in a subtle way

that your submission may get you

published in some compendium of

bathos. And this time, you

better hope you're not given




The wandering beholder can snack

safely, from afar, upon the

gingerbread homepage that media

witches built. But beware.

Whenever a mark - whether a

freelancer, self-publisher,

conference poster, or chat

participant - frolics too close

and begins to ornament such a

structure with original eye

candy and $5 vocabulary words,

she risks seeing her content

parlayed into filthy lucre.

Someone else's filthy lucre.

Maybe, even, by way of cable TV.

courtesy of the Internick