This document is a supplement to
Editing for Clear Communication
Copyright 1996-1999,
Thom Lieb


No portion may be reused without the author's permission.

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Further Reading:
Legal Issues

Supreme Court ruling on the Communication Decency Act

The Copyright Website

Howard Kurtz, "Cyber-Libel and the Web Gossip-Monger," Washington Post, 15 August 1997 ($)

"TotalNews Pokes a Stick at Big Media Again," Wired News, 12 June 1997.

Steve Outing, "Most News Online Managers Relieved by Freelance Ruling," Editor & Publisher Interactive, 15 August 1997

Steve Outing, "Legality of New E-Mail Service Questioned," Editor & Publisher Interactive, 24 February 1997

David E. Kalish, "Online News Providers Resist Ratings," Washington Post, 29 August 1997 ($)


Ethical Issues

Steve Outing, "Read the Review, Buy the Book: How Ethical?" Editor & Publisher Interactive, 10 October 1997

Jon Katz, "Media Ethics Part I: The Problem", Hotwired, 11 December 1996

SPJ Code of Ethics

Ethical guidelines for new media

Robin Goodwyn Blumenthal, "Woolly Times on the Web," Columbia Journalism Review, Sept./Oct. 1997.

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Editing for the Web

Keeping Up with Legal and Ethical Challenges

If being a good Web editor means constantly keeping on top of things, nowhere is that ability more important than in the areas of law and ethics.

The digital transmission of text, graphics, audio and video on the Web make them highly susceptible to theft, also known as copyright infringement. While there are exceptions for fair use — reviews, educational purposes and the like — it's always safest to get permission before using anything you find on the Web.

In late 1996, the World Intellectual Property Organization met in Geneva to consider proposals for handling copyright in the digital era. The U.S. proposals have met with criticisms that the proposals would prohibit Web publishers from displaying sports scores without paying royalties. Another area of concern is the proposed protection of databases. Critics worry that the definitions of a database are too broad; materials now in the public domain could be made the property of specific individuals and corporations.

Some people even argue that having a link to their Web site constitutes copyright infringement. Generally, however, according to The Copyright Website:

A link is a URL, a fact not unlike a street address, and is therefore not copyrightable. However, a list may be copyrightable under a compilation copyright if it contains some originality.

So while it would be fine to include any link listed on this page on a page of your own, you should get permission before using the entire "Further Reading" list.

A key concern about sites linking to other sites is the effect of the association of a site that links to another, for example, Babes on the Web, a site that rated "the women of the Web" and linked to various women's Web pages that contain photos. While there is little legal recourse for such linkages, The Copyright Website points out,

Netiquette dictates that:

  • Other Web sites be told when you plan to link to them.
  • Links to other Web sites be removed if the linkee objects.

In two foreign cases, Web publishers have taken legal action against producers of other sites that link to their sites without permission. While no such battles have been fought in the States yet, that doesn't mean they're beyond the realm of possibility.

Composite Web pages also raise sticky legal issues. A composite page is one that is made up at least in part of material residing on other servers. So if I want to include a picture of Mickey Mouse on my page, I might link to one at the Disney Web site. Some Web producers have used this technique to grab page backgrounds, sound files, animations and other materials. The Copyright Website argues against such use, noting that "By stripping an element of its context, you also strip many of the copyright privileges that may have been attached."

Building such composite pages could land you in trouble with laws such as the Georgia statute designed to protect registered trademarks. The law affects users who send data that "uses any individual name, trade name, registered trademark, logo, legal or official seal ... when such permission or authorization has not been obtained." While once such laws were the concern of only those who published in a geographical location, the border-less nature of the Web also raises questions about the application of any law: Does it apply only to sites created or maintained in that state, to sites accessible to users in that state or to some other group? At this point, no one knows.

Another emerging area of concern is whether it is appropriate for a site to display content from another site within a frame. Those doing so — such as TotalNews — argue that they are helping the sites they feature, by sending visitors to their pages. But in doing so, critics claim, the "parasites" often manage to obscure the advertising on the source pages, which allows sites such as TotalNews to attract advertising without producing any original content. In June 1997, TotalNews agreed to send visitors directly to sites run by the Washington Post, Dow Jones, Time Warner, Reuters and Times Mirror, rather than displaying content from those sites in a frame on the TotalNews site. The agreement came after those companies sued TotalNews for copyright infringement. A few days later, TotalNews tested the limits again by giving users the ability to assemble news pages that can contain other sites within frames.

Even using someone's words should be treated with caution. It's one thing to quote small portions of online documents and give the sources, as I do throughout this document. But search engines make it possible to find what people have said in online discussion lists. Many members of these groups have no intention of making their comments available to the general public, so if you intend to quote them, you should get their permission first.

While it may be far from a Web producer's thoughts on most days, no law has attracted more controversy than the Communications Decency Act, passed in early 1996 and immediately the target of a lawsuit filed by the Citizens Internet Empowerment Coalition, a group that includes the Society of Professional Journalists, the Newspaper Association of America and the Association of American Publishers Inc. The law was ruled unconsitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1997, but many states have adopted similar legislation.

After the defeat of the CDA, the Clinton administration pushed for voluntary rating of content on the Internet. While some news publishers supported the rating plan, in late August 1997, major online news organizations announced their opposition. Among those opposed: the Associated Press, MSNBC, CNN Interactive, The New York Times, Time Inc., ABC News, Reuters New Media, Business Week, the Houston Chronicle, the Magazine Publishers Association of America and the Newspaper Association of America.

Ethics, too, can become tricky in the online environment. One particular problem for online journalists is the merging of journalism, advertising and marketing; some newspaper Web sites actually fall under the supervision of the marketing department rather than the editorial department. Such arrangements should make journalists cautious, keeping in mind that their first responsibility is to inform the public, not increase the company's profits.

One particular area of concern is newspaper book reviews that offer a link to an online bookstore, where readers can purchase the books being reviewed. Advocates say the links offer a service to readers; critics suggest that the commission on book sales resulting from the links could be a strong incentive for publishers to refrain from running negative reviews.

These issues represent just the edge of a growing tide of challenges that could not be foreseen in the pre-Web era. Only by staying up to date can you hope to keep your head above water.

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