Lend Me Your Ear

Once upon a time, knowledge was passed mouth to ear. Stories and information were deemed important enough that individuals dedicated lifetimes to their memorization and delivery. Eventually, we found other ways to propagate knowledge—through painting, carving, writing, printing—and so the story unfolds.

Each new form does not supplant its forbears; rather it signals our continued hope for cultural and intellectual communication and endurance. The Web, email, even IM and blogging, provide us with the latest ways to tell our tales and share our thoughts and knowledge with immediacy and intimacy on an unprecedented scale.

As a journalist, I am confronted with the downside of emergent communication more than most. While I welcome information delivered quickly in a variety of ways, I recognize that print time lag lets us fact check, copy edit, and think a bit more before we communicate. With the increasing pressure for real-time information comes the responsibility of balancing substance with speed.

We also are called upon to keep a close eye on copyright laws as they emerge concurrent with our work, changing as the medium does. Many people may recall the Tasini ruling, which protected the rights of writers whose work is published digitally. As Marydee Ojala, editor of Online, wondered in the June 2001 issue of EContent, "Should content be one thing in print and another in electronic format?" Her conclusion was both yes and no. But she did find that now publishers know where they stand: Digital content has copyright rules that must be followed.

Taming the Wild Wild Web lent it legitimacy, which again proved a mixed blessing. Like the printed word, you can't believe everything you read. Digital content, by its nature, facilitates the proliferation of spoofs, lies, and piracy—all of which are easier to create and deliver, and harder for the consumer to detect than ever before. For those in the digital content industry—be they fee-based info services or purveyors of content creation or management tools—the relative ease of irresponsible online publishing forces us to do our jobs under the cloud of amorphous legislation confounded by a lack of effective enforcement methods.

So we must take the responsibility of being informed and informing others—in the creation of products, delivery of content, and in working with customers. But first and foremost, we must lead by example. How can we, as an industry, expect to succeed if we don't honor that which we serve?

In judging companies for the EContent 100 list, I hit hundreds of sites, assessing organizations that have been on the list for years along with the newly nominated. One of the first places I head is to the press room. Press releases demonstrate how a company represents itself and media coverage of the company shows how experts perceive the company's doings and its place in the industry.

In this, my third year of EC100 voting, I've been dismayed to find that more companies than ever before cut and paste coverage from this magazine (and many others) and post it on their sites. Some do so by HTML, some make PDFs of Web site content, while others go so far as to scan print articles and post PDFs of those. Posting scanned copy is beyond the pale because I think that, except possibly for those still solely reliant on the oral tradition, most people are aware that printed content is subject to copyright protection. But the other two copyright-bending practices are nearly as baffling given that I'm researching companies in the digital content industry. We're all in the business of advancing secure, econtent-based business models, yet firms feel comfortable posting pilfered econtent. Most also lift our logo or other elements of our design because, I would assume, the fact that we wrote about them is of as much value as the words themselves.

Generally, when I contact reps at these companies, they apologize and remove the article, replacing it with a purchased digital or hardcopy reprint or a headline and a link directly to the content on our site, which we consider acceptable. Deep linking continues to be an issue in the industry, because some publishers prefer to control a user's entry-path to content and site redesigns and other technological issues cause links to go bad. However, it has become quite commonplace and is actually encouraged as a way of using the Web's viral-marketing phenomenon to build awareness and site hits. That said, many companies request permission even to link to our site, which I find courteous, if cautious.

But once and a while I hit upon a company that says it doesn't know what it did wrong. They claim they are putting content on their site that a user could get online anyway, so what's the problem? The problem is not that they pass along content that we would like to have their site visitors read, it is that the content belongs to us—through an investment of thought, time, money, and a clearly stated copyright—and we retain the right and responsibility to decide how that content is used.

The value we place on our stories tells the tale of our culture. We must all respect the value of digital content—and not just our own—if we are to hope that econtent will be a story that endures.