Link, don't pass around files

Jan 25 2011 Published by under Open Access, Praxis

So I heard an interesting question the other day, one that's worth thinking out loud about. Someone asked whether it was legal, copyrightly-speaking, to post a legally open-access article to a public server or service (such as Facebook or FriendFeed), or if one should link instead.

The answer, as with most copyright questions, is "it depends." The other answer is "I am not a lawyer; if you have a copyright question, go ask a lawyer." But in my estimation, even when reposting is probably safe, I think it's better to link, and I'll try to explain why I think that.

First, there's a pragmatic argument: it's usually just plain easier to drop in a link than to download and reupload (and if it isn't easier, the hosting archive is broken). I'm all in favor of easy.

Second, in many cases, reposting articles publicly may well infringe copyright. If there's a CC-BY license on the article, I would guess public reposting with credit to be an acceptable reuse. If there's a CC non-commercial or share-alike license, I'd personally think twice. If there's no CC license at all, which is the usual case? By reposting, you're making a copy, and yes, an author or copyright-owning publisher could bring a lawsuit over that. Would they have much of a case? Who knows? I don't. But who needs the hassle?

Can I, as a digital-archive manager, give you permission to repost items from the archive I run? Actually, no, I usually can't (the few CC-BY items in the archive aside). The license that archive depositors give the archive lets the archive disseminate materials via its own website. That license emphatically does not let the archive give other people permission to disseminate (except perhaps under the specific circumstance of the archive shutting down and transferring the entirety of its assets elsewhere). It's a subtle point, but important.

Third, there's an impact question to consider. As alternative impact metrics take hold in journal publishing, view and download numbers take on new importance for authors. If you repost an article instead of linking to it, are you going to count views and downloads? Probably not. Publishers and archives, though, they're counting and reporting. So anybody who downloads your copy robs the author of a countable download. Maybe that doesn't matter much today… but it might matter a lot tomorrow.

Fourth, authors aren't the only folks counting views and downloads. Digital archives aren't magically free to run, and we digital archivists don't work entirely out of the goodness of our hearts. One of the ways we justify our work and our archives' existence is through view-and-download counts. When you repost, you dilute the impact that we can report to our funders. Speaking as one whose service has been threatened with closure—any impact dilution can be a true threat.

Link, don't repost, even when reposting is legal. The author you benefit may be your colleague, or even yourself. The open-access archive or publisher you benefit is fighting against the paywall-bounded darkness.

19 responses so far

  • Chris says:

    Part of the problem is that Facebook, especially, does not handle links with semicolon separators. So people may well get bad links and feel that it is the fault of the repository and that they NEED to maintain a separate download.

    • Dorothea says:

      What kind of broken software issues links with semicolon separators?

      People are right. That kind of nonsense IS the fault of the repository.

      • semi-colon seperators in URL query strings is actually the encouraged standards-compliant way for a web application to behave. Even though hardly any apps follow that advice.

        So I wouldn't say it's entirely the fault of the repository -- it's facebook's fault. But in the real world, actual software needs to take account of other poorly behaving actors in the ecosystem too, yeah. I'd say in general, library-sector IR development isn't so good at developing the right features and applications to actually work in the real world, at iterative development based on actual use and problems. Although on top of that, library IR administrators aren't very good at upgrading to more recent versions, even when the IR developers might be iteratively improving. And maybe the IR software isn't as easy to upgrade as it needs to be either.

        • Dorothea says:

          Agreed on all counts (and guilty on the software versioning, though that's because we're migrating platforms).

          I didn't know that about the semicolons. Weird. I thought they were an artifact of bad session-based software, though that may be early formative influences talking. 🙂

    • As much as I dislike them, URL shortners can be used to work around this problem by hiding a link containing a semicolon behind a layer of redirection. Such workarounds come at the cost of introducing another agent into the usecase, as well as another single-point-of-failure, but it may be preferable to copying the resource of interest.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    I would like to add that even if the resource is a scholarly journal, the library would prefer you just link to it instead of sending the pdf. We also justify licensing content by referring to the usage.

    • Dorothea says:

      Yes, I was limiting my remarks to OA material, but there are definitely some related use-cases (such as licensed material as electronic reserves).

  • ecologist says:

    I'm curious about your comments on CC licenses. All of them (as far as I know) start with CC-BY and then add on further restrictions (share alike, non-commercial, etc.), but those restrictions do not impact the right of the user to copy and distribute the material. What am I missing here?


    • Dorothea says:

      Look again. An NC condition restricts copy and distribution to "non-commercial purposes." Facebook is a commercial entity -- sure, somebody sharing via Facebook probably has an NC purpose, but does that let them out of the NC clause? Unclear at best.

      Ditto for SA. If you distribute a full-text copy as part of a course you teach, do you then have to SA your syllabus, or course website? Maybe not, because you haven't altered or transformed... but "built upon?" Who knows? Recontextualization could be construed as a form of "building upon" the original.

      I stick to CC-BY, both for what I license and what I reuse.

      • ecologist says:

        I don't think it's as unclear as you do, at least as I read it. For example, the link you gave says that the BY-NC license says that you are

        "Free to to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit the work"

        Facebook, like email, or a web page, or snail mail, is a distribution channel. Saying that the distribution channel is a commercial entity would rule out distributing or transmiting the work by USPS, telephone lines, etc etc.

        Similarly for SA, it seems to me. If I distribute a full-text copy under BY-SA, I have to let others have the same right. That no more applies to my whole course syllabus than it applies to other parts of my teaching career, research activities, life, ... since those are all "part of" something bigger.

        BUT ... even though I think you are misreading the CC licenses, I don't really have anything to go on other than what seems reasonable to me. You raise interesting points, and have made me think about it more.


        • Dorothea says:

          "Free to Share" -- as long as you respect the attached conditions, yes. And in the absence of legal precedent, we don't really know how to interpret NC and SA conditions when it comes down to brass tacks. (I would welcome analysis by lawyers, especially lawyers associated with CC.)

          I may well be a worrywart. Goodness knows I don't track extraneous web copies of stuff in the repository I run; I don't know any institutional repository that does. And if I did find one, I'd never sue or recommend suing; how silly!

          But SSRN (for example) has pretty strict rules on that point -- granted, they don't use CC licenses. So in general, I stand by the assertion that linking is safer than redistributing.

        • Dorothea says:

          Also -- and this is indubitably my irrationality talking -- an NC or SA license speaks to me in completely non-legalistic terms. It says "this is somebody who polices reuse, and may make my life a living hell if I do something s/he doesn't approve of."

          So I stick to CC-BY, which says something altogether different and friendlier. YMMV.

  • David Crotty says:

    Think also about supporting the work done by your favorite OA journal publisher. Likely they're trying to make some extra revenue to support their efforts by selling ads. More traffic on their site means more ad revenue, means they're better able to innovate and do the job you want them to do.

  • (another) former academic says:

    One other reason to link instead of repost - what if there's an error in the original?

    If you've linked, the repository has a way to let your audience know about the correction (if the repository is sensible). But if you've got your own copy then how will anyone know it's not the latest version?

    This is perhaps less critical for articles than for data sets (where most of my experience lies), but there are the odd errata and retractions.

    • Dorothea says:

      For datasets, unquestionably.

      For articles, this is just part of a wriggly can of worms, one that bugs me as a digital-archive manager. I'm actually really hoping that CrossRef's rumored article-version-detecting-and-control engine works as advertised and has an API, because then there might be SOME hope of programmatically bringing notification of retractions or errors back to pre/post-print archives.

      As it is, there ain't no hope at all -- and that's a problem.

      • It's silly we're passing around and archiving "pre-prints" and "post-prints" anyway (do those words mean anything to most people?), when perfectly good digital copies are available. The only reason we're doing it at all are licensing/business models. And it's those same businesses models that probably wouldn't -want- corrections making their way back to pre-prints and post-prints -- if a pre or post print were really as good as 'the actual article'... the only reason we're passing them around in the first place is because the copyright owners figure they're not as good so they can let it slide. But then the users figure, eh, it's good enough if it's free. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

        • Dorothea says:

          No, those words don't mean anything to most people.

          No, it doesn't make sense.

          No, I don't hold out much hope that academic libraries care enough to do anything about it, collectively. We'll have to be herded into the next paradigm, when we could have been the shepherds.