Who Owns What on the Web?

spider web
Photo by foxypar4 via Creative Commons

It’s a tricky question that’s found its way into the spotlight yet again. As newspapers cry foul and the Associated Press goes for the kill (whether murder or suicide is yet to be seen), Danny Sullivan’s response to traditional media publishers’ misunderstanding of the Web environment shines a clear new light on the conversation. With the Web we’ve created a virally propagated content staging ground and, like a germ during flu season, it can be hard to figure out the point of origin.

I don’t have any new answers to the media’s desires to have their cake and eat it too — how to maintain full ownership and receive search-driven traffic at once. But, at the risk of adding to the echo chamber, I’d like to play a little connect the dots. Let’s see how tangled our Web of online content has become.

Traditional Media

newspaper and tea
Photo by Matt Callow via Creative Commons

As Danny points out in his piece above, Google has continually introduced features and implementations aimed at rewarding the old-schoolers of the news world. The ACAP, admittance into Google News long before anyone else, and even the Vince algo update are all measures that give more control and credibility (a la rankings) to long-established publishers. The truth is, the search giant just can’t keep everyone happy — no matter what they do.

The AP, not satisfied taking aim at only bloggers, is concocting schemes, like charging Google to obtain licensing agreements. Fortunately, it appears there are a few level-headed publishers left:

At a time when newspaper revenue is collapsing and some papers are closing, the prospect of a share of revenue from Yahoo or Google is more tempting than ever. But executives at some news organizations have called the ire at the search engines misguided, saying that much of their own Web traffic arrives through links on search pages.

Social Media Networks

wires and a wall
Image by Mathias Pastwa via Creative Commons

As I see it, the social media space is host to two different content ownership dilemmas. The first is similar to that of traditional media — the content producer vs. the traffic generator. Social bookmarking Digg set the standard for ethical content aggregation; that is, until they introduced DiggBar this week. The new feature directs users to the content through iframes hosted on the site, keeping users and spiders on Digg. Content creators are frustrated after losing many benefits from the traffic Digg previously generated when linking directly to the site.

On the other side of the social media content puzzle is the question of who owns the account — the employee or the company? The advent of social media has hit some companies unexpectedly, and the challenges of the new communication technologies are still being sorted out. Company time vs. personal time and company accounts vs. personal accounts can fall under fuzzy designations. The obvious solution is to set out ownership beforehand, but if your company was scrambling to catch up in the social media realm, that conversation may not have happened. Regardless of what occurred when the account was created, it’s likely that a lot of value and resources were invested in that account by all parties involved, so cut-and-dry ownership can be hard to determine.

User Content

someone taking a picture of you
Photo by Michell Zappa via Creative Commons

When one Pennsylvania couple sued Google for taking pictures of their private property for use in Street View, the judge ruled that the images did not constitute invasion of privacy. Kinda throws into question the concept of private property, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the content generated by users on the Web in what are believed to be “private” spaces. Facebook did a little hokey pokey dance when it changed its terms of service and then changed them back again. At first the social network wanted to claim ownership of users’ data, but an angry mob convinced Facebook that wasn’t the best idea. Now a project in the UK will attempt to archive Internet traffic over the next year. E-mails, VOIP telephone calls and Web history are all subject to the directive.

Obviously there are complex ownership issues that have emerged among search engines, content producers, social networks and individual users online. The Web is so named because everything is connected, but all the sticky situations seem pretty fitting, too.

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (6)
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6 Replies to “Who Owns What on the Web?”

It’s a good article. But for the couple who sued google, I think they’re just wasting their time and money, it’s not invasion of privacy. They’re in public anyway.

Virginia Nussey

Hi Ryan,

I appreciate critiques that are constructive. Thanks for your comment.

I think the definition of privacy will really be re-defined in terms of the invasiveness of modern technology, particularly social networks where disclosure of private details is no longer relegated to what one chooses to disclose.

Nice article.. :)

As for the couple suing Google, I think that’s just a stupid idea, Unless they are Yahoo! Answers’ fans..

(My Opinion)

Sorry, but this is an article or just a bunch of random loosely connected thoughts?

Great post,

I think we’re all curious to see how those questions will be solved in the next years.


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