The Dilemma of Digital Texts: Who Owns What’s on the Web?

Close Open flickr photo by Kaarina Dillabough shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

An interesting, and quite challenging, discussion unfolded on Twitter this past weekend that centered on the concepts of crowd annotation tools and content that can found on the open web. Tools like Hypothesis (which I use pretty regularly) allow you to annotate most websites and blogs, creating a digital margin side area for discussion. The benefits seem obvious to me: crowd annotation provides a space for engaging group discussions about specific texts and ideas, generating new and expanded understanding of the digital pieces that we are reading.

But the provocative question was raised by a writer with a large audience (one whom I read regularly and support via Patreon): Who owns that original text (that content which is being annotated in the digital margins) and how much say do they have over whether the annotation should even happen in the first place? This particular writer used a web script to shut down Hypothesis and other annotation tools at their site.

It’s not a clear-cut issue, at least in my mind, and a long discussion on Twitter between nearly a dozen people (including the writer, for a bit, before they became angered by the discussion and asked to be left alone) revealed the complexities of ownership of content, and what relationship the writer has with their readers when posting something to the open web.

I find myself appreciating a writer’s desire to be able to control what is being done at their website or blog, and understand the sense of being concerned about what people are doing in the margins of an original text. Sure, comments potentially do open up that discussion, too, but let’s face it, the comment sections of many sites — particularly those run by women with strong opinions — often get overrun by those with nothing better to do in their petty lives than leave vicious comments and provocative, and perhaps profane, words.

The worry is that someone writing in the digital margins will be malicious, too, and the writer would have little (at this time, anyway) recourse. This is a legitimate concern, as any perusal of comments at YouTube will tell you. (Hypothesis is close to adding some new functions for flagging content and has been mulling over this very concept of writer’s rights). To be honest, I have yet to come across anything like that in Hypothesis.

Still, as much I can see the point of protest, another part of me (maybe the naive part of me, that voice that says look to potential and possibilities with digital writing) thinks, if you post something to the world via the Web, you can expect (hope/intend) that maybe someone will want to read what you wrote and maybe react to your words. Why else post your writing if not to engage a reader? (The argument against this viewpoint is that people do the writing, not technology, and writers should not be held hostage to the potential aspects of technology. Or something like that.)

I believe tools like Hypothesis give space for collaborative discussions, allowing the margins of the text to come alive with conversation and questions and associative linking that extends the thinking of the original writer. It empowers the reader, although perhaps that empowerment comes at the expense of the writer’s authority over their own words at that point.

Personally, I use Hypothesis to closely read online texts, to examine and think, and to bounce ideas off the text to others in the margins, who help push my own thinking forward or force me to re-examine my beliefs and ideas. Your text, if posted to the web, can become a source of inspiration for me, and others. That’s a real gift to your readers.

Clearly, not everyone thinks this way.

What do you think?

Who owns the text once a writer makes it public on the Web?

Peace (thinking),

PS — There were other nuances to the Twitter discussion that I did not capture here — including the right to be forgotten in a connected world; obligations and compacts (or not) to readers who financially support the writer who is not wanting to be annotated; and what role a text has in the public sphere.

PSS — I purposely did not name the writer because they clearly were upset that their decision was being questioned, and I did not want to make their situation any worse. Besides, the individual case here is less important than the larger discussion.

  1. Anyone who shuts down their comments or margins because of a troll has just enabled that particular troll to rob us all of the benefits of that channel.

    I love how in discussions I have had that the commenting behavior in the margins is characterized as “non-consensual annotation”. Annotation as rape. What a concept. That is concept creep of the first magnitude and an outrage to all the folks who are just wanting to share and talk and learn.

    I consider publicly published materials to be part of the intellectual commons and as such useable, remixable, quotable, and annotateable by all. To nix comments and annotations is the same as enclosing the commons. That was the death of freehold agriculture in England and it is the death of the internet in the 21st century. We are closer every day to that.

    What bothers me is that those who are trolled do not call on their communities for the mutual aid they should be able to expect. I have belonged to forums that have been harassed by trollish members and those trolls have gotten their asses handed back to them by the community. Sometimes in ways both unexpected and delightfully karmic. I am happy to slide in spikes up in aid to any legit member of my community.

    But here’s the problem–I suspect that rather than engage and rally against the trolls we would rather just ban any activity that might be ‘irksome’ in the slightest. The internet is an agora, a marketplace to share and defend and find the best ideas. It is a place for the evolution of views. How can we know the difference between trolls and gadflies if we don’t have a place to share together.

    As a resident of flyover country and the rough and tumble precariat of Trumpland, I suspect that shutting off incoming channels is just another way to secure the echo chamber rather than to engage, to ask for help from the ‘rough’ folk out there like me. And make no mistake I know some shit about ‘rough’. I am the kinda guy you really want to have your back, but folks who cancel these open channels will never know that. Why? Because the writer never asked for the mutual aid that is her due. We all have obligations as public writers, but we are also also owed security and mutual aid from our communities.

    I feel abandoned when someone removes commenting and annotating, especially if I (like you) have invested not only money but more importantly time and attention in that writer. I see it more and more especially among those who seem to have gotten above their “raisings”. Too good to reciprocate, too important to have to take any risks in the wild.

    Anti-spami-trollitudinousness: Rigor my…then I thought to myself, “Will this offend anyone?” It might. I have heard of ‘not save for work’ but what about ‘not safe to not hear’? Ok, deep breath. As long as I am not being abused or threatened with abuse, then I can be reasonable or just ignore them. If not, then I can find some help from my community. OK. Good. Here, troll-y troll-y troll-y.

    • One would hope the Crowd could come to the defense in those situations. But I wonder if that happens. Maybe it is because, as you say, folks are more apt to shut down than fight back, for fear of increasing the vitriol. All of that — the negativity that even forces a writer with something important to say to even consider erecting the walls — points to the sad state of online possibilities in too many circles, and reminds us that small circles of closely connected people might be more powerful. Unless, of course, it boxes you into the Echo Chamber.
      Thanks for taking the time to write and reflect.

  2. Terry Elliott’s very typical commentaries above are indicative of what is wrong with the world.

    The enclosure of the commons happens not by individuals disallowing comments (a very weird idea to say the least) but by those with power taking for themselves what has been previously made public–in this case, the “common” space of public interaction.

    Terry talks about unintended consequences, but we already see the unintended consequences of the free-spech uber alles doctrine he recommends: those with power, whether personal power (trolls and bullies) or financial power (paid-for trolls and bullies) descend on the authors of dissenting views and make it emotionally uncomfortable or impossible for them to continue their work. Not only do they stop, but many others don’t start in the first place. So the trolls win.

    The fact that the original action under debate here is so metaphorized beyond belief is part of what is telling. After all, Audrey Watters could not actually protect her text so much that other people can’t annotate it–she only protected it so that others cannot annotate it with links back to her own site. Her text is still reproducible, copyable, citable, and everything else. just not directly linked back to her site.

    so what she was really claiming was control over a small domain, not over the text itself.

    Terry seems to think that shutting down comments because of a troll is letting the troll win. But he must know that there are many examples of not writing in the first place due to knowing what the trolls will do in response. Surely not writing at all is worse than not allowing comments directly on the site (as opposed to responding to it on another site, which so far as i know cannot be prevented via technology).

    Terry’s recommendation is that the only people allowed to speak should be those with strong encought constittuions to let people spew bile at them within their own limited environments. We have plenty of evidence of what that results in. In that way, the rape analogy is less pernicious than he seems. if we do what he says, it just so happiness that woman after woman and minority after minority will be trolled to hell and stop doing their work. and then it will be “our fault” for not being strong enough to stand up to it.

    that’s BS. it is often the voices of people who don’t have the rather unusual strength of character (if that’s what it is) to stand up to weaponized degradation who say the things we most need to hear. if they need to do that in a space where nobody else can speak (which after all is the traditional model of publication too), so be it.

    • This is sort of the false truth of openness that we (maybe this is just me, not we) want to think we live and write in, but it’s not the way the world is. The dynamics of power and privilege follow us everywhere. I don’t agree with your assertion that Terry’s comment is “indicative of what is wrong with the world” but I do think the thread points to the difficulties facing all of us as we consider what words we release to the world and what that means.
      On another note: Could I take someone else’s text, copy and paste it elsewhere and then annotate it? Well, of course. But that seems to go against the grain of being a reader of digital writing, where the reader hopes to interact with the text and potentially, with the writer of the text. (Sort of like here?) Unfortunately, my default is “that’s positive” while the real world reminds me “not always.”
      Thanks for stopping by

  3. Part of what I find intriguing is the originator of the discussion is – or WAS- a major proponent of the open web, OER, and all that. The writer is also a critic of capitalism, yet one of the reasons cited for closing off commentary was the idea that others could monetize the writer’s work, money that should belong to the original author. (Wow! Writing without pronouns is hard!)

    I think Terry is onto something. If we are a community of writers, then we should feel free to ask for help from our colleagues in dealing with trolls. And if we aren’t willing to engage in conversations, are we really any different than print authors?

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