Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Is It Stealing to Repost Other People’s Content? : How to Define Information Theft in a Digital Age

The internet still sometimes feels like an idyllic place where, for the price of an internet connection, almost everything is free or at least freely avaiable. In spite of the popups and banner ads, one of the founding myths of the internet remains: that the spirit of the internet is free and not capitalistic, and that people are not in it for commercial reasons but simply for the sharing of something. Everyone is sharing or peddling something on the internet—opinions, photos, businesses, products and information. There are even websites peddling what other people are peddling. in other people’s information.

From digital and physical newspapers to blogs there are numerous websites producing original content. Likewise, some sites profit by simply providing a space for redistributed, regurgitated and reposted articles. In this age of digital information where copy and paste can be done almost instantaneously: Is it stealing to repost and redistribute other people’s content?

This is an ethical question that I came to ask myself personally. The answer I think largely depends on how it’s done. The way its shared I think determines whether it is information theft or healthy propagation in a networked world.

People produce and do things of value. Traditionally, we think of either products or services that are bought and sold according to needs and wants. But as society has evolved, people have come to produce more and more things of what I would call subtle or invisible value. Things or services that have explicit or transparent value are those which we can consciously realizing as having worth and, as such, requiring payment. Most material goods are clear examples of explicit value. You would never imagine stealing a physical newspaper from a newsstand.

On the other hand, in our internet society, there are increasing number of things whose value is less apparent or less noticeable. Their subtle or invisible value notes the fact that many people are not necessarily consciously aware that their use of these digital, easily copyable informational products still participates in a money-making system. We read so many internet articles that we unconsciously think of all this information as entirely free, which it is in some ways but not in all. Most people wouldn’t blink an eye, let alone raise up their arms in moral outrage, at seeing and reading some article that has reposted elsewhere even though it is originally from somewhere else. We aren’t even aware that this is theft.

The web is largely a public space that is open to all for access. It is also a space paid for and fueled by commercial enterprises. It is no longer a purely educational or philanthropic enterprise of sharing. Many news outlets, blogs and numerous other sites make money through advertisements on their sites. While sometimes these ads, like pop-ups, are quite obstructive and explicitly there, we are most of the time unconscious to much of the advertising on many websites. It is there on the periphery but does not obviously obstruct the content. These advertisements, though rarely clicked on the whole, still provide the basic income for many of these sites. They provide much of the income that fuels the very existence of these websites.

Even though some people are vocal opponents, advertising is necessary, because information needs to found and produced as well as posted and displayed somewhere. None of which is free in terms of time and of web hosting. For a news article, someone has to be there, ask the questions, film the situation, collect the sound bites, quotes, and statistics and, finally, synthesize it into a coherent story. These articles are then edited and published either virtually or in a physical product. For a blog post, someone has to sit down think through what they want to say, write it out, and eventually post it to a site. In both cases, someone has spent their time to produce something of value, namely informational value.

It is a truism in the blogging world that the best and most profitable websites produce the best content. No matter what it is, the quality of the content encourages people to read, watch, listen, participate, etc. on a website. If its worthwhile, people return to these sites for more info and sometimes encourage others to go there. These readers, returnees and referrals are the key audience for advertisements, because the more people are in the presence of the main content, the more likely they are to click on pay-per-click link or buy a product that the website endorses. The economy of the internet is quite simple: create quality content, find readership, increase web traffic and encourage people to unconsciously click on these ads or links or to buy your product.

The ease of information flow and of referrals is both one of the keys of internet business success but also an opening for unconscious informational theft. Websites create interesting information that is entirely open to access as well as to being copied. In a few clicks and key strokes this digital information is completely transferable elsewhere without any connection to the originator and without any difference from the original, excluding the framework. People are unaware that they are “stealing,” because such informational data is so easily transferable that its value is rendered almost entirely invisible. It’s the “brand name” framework of a website along with its advertisements that make an internet business as such. And when someone click away this original frame in order to repost the content or part of the content elsewhere, there is the potential for theft depending on how its done.

Many blogs copy and paste entire articles or significant excerpts from other websites with little or new references to the original. I myself am guilty of such an act. One of my blogs was started as as a way to collect articles. The core idea I think was a good one, namely that amongst the expansive mass of information out there on the web, it was important to note and perserve somewhere articles that we like and find significant. The intention of this blog was just that: “post interesting, informative and thought-provoking articles I come across in my disparate readings.” But it has come to my attention that if someone would read my posted articles instead of the original, it would in some ways would be stealing. It’s clearly not in my case stealing in the sense of intentionally taking something of explicit value from another person. In fact, my intention is quite the opposite: it is to share and further disseminate good articles and ideas.

But in copying and reposting the entire content of an article on my own blog, I was in fact stealing the web traffic from the original source. Websites earn their bread and butter through their web traffic, because it’s this web traffic that once brought in the presence of the original content has the potential to click on an ad or link and earn the website a slice of the pie. Even if we provide the basic information concerning the original source, we are not encouraging or expecting people to go to there by providing the entirety or the vast majority of an article. The removal of removal of informational content from its roots, namely its original frame, and replanting it as our own or as our own garden is stealing. By simply copying and pasting someone else’s content onto our own blog or site, we are guilty of stealing.

For the reasons I mentioned above, I have recently stopped posting on this blog.

While it is easy to take this derooting and replanting form as theft, other forms of shared information are not so easy to label as “theft” nor should they be. For some time, on my main blog Mystic Atheist I used to to synthesize my daily and weekly reading into a post I called Weekly Links. My Weekly Links page was a collection of links to my favorite readings and of excepts of key passages along with my personal commentary. The actual process of creating this page had added my mark to the original material. I would only use excerpts and I would always encourage people to read or watch the original. Unfortunately, this was a rather time consuming process, which I ceased doing and converted to simply posting entire articles via a secondary blog as explained above. I don’t see any problem in websites that share links and selections and provide summaries and commentaries of websites and articles. In fact, such websites are the core way quality websites and articles come to our attention. Without social networking through others we’d never come across information outside what we already know and expect. As such, I think that this isn’t stealing or cheating at all; it’s information sharing.

I still dream about a free, open, and free-spirited internet, even though I know it is become more and more commercialized like TV, more and more routed and filtered through certain sites like Google…