December 15th, 2007

The Web’s Link-Driven Attention Economy


Photographer Lane Hartwell, by making all of her Flickr photos private to prevent uncredited use, and by forcing the take down of a parody video containing one of her photos, has shined a spotlight on the question of content owner’s rights on the web.

Mathew Ingram and Mike Arrington argue that Lane is on the wrong side of copyright law with the video take down, which she may be, but the reality is that the web has developed a de facto law of it’s own when it comes to fair use.

In the post-YouTube, post-BitTorrent era on the web, there is no content that can’t be easily reproduced by anyone, anywhere, for free. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a currency for content on the web, which most content producers accept in exchange for a fair-use excerpt or even reproduction of the entire work.

The link.

The entire content economy on the web is based on the link, because the one resource that remains scare amidst all the plenty of the web is attention, and the link is what drives attention. The link drives search, the most powerful attention engine on the web. The link drives Digg, which can crash servers with its avalanche of attention. And the link drives the humble exchange of attention from one blog to another — or the transfer of attention, via a photo credit link, from a photo reproduced on one site to the photographers’ page or site.

If Lane Hartwell had consistently received a link in exchange for use of her photos on Flickr, I’d bet her photo stream would still be public. On the web, it’s not just the name credit that matters — it’s the link that enables a photo editor to discover the rest of Lane’s work, find her contact information, and offer her an assignment. It’s the link enables more people to discover her work, which enhances her reputation. And it’s her reputation that is the monetizable asset.

Still, fair use linking for images on the web is not a simple issue. When a content excerpt is sufficiently limited, such as a line of text or a video thumbnail, the result can be a promotion for the full content where it lives on the publisher’s site, driving attention to that publisher to monetize by a variety of means.

But it’s hard to excerpt a photo. The only option is thumbnails, which is what Digg uses — in most cases, there is sufficient incentive for users to click through to the site where the image is published, to see the full-size image. But it’s a fine line.


(Here’s the original photo on Flickr)

Of course, I’m sure Lane would prefer, beyond a link, to be paid whenever her photos are reproduced on the web. But the web is, for better or worse, an attention economy — content creators who demand payment for distribution face stiff competition from a much larger group willing to accept attention as payment, with or without the ability to effectively monetize that attention.

For content creators, making money from content on the web is not a simple, linear process as it was in analogue media. There are moments when they may have the leverage to charge for distribution of their content, and others when they may have to make a strategic decision to make it available for free in exchange for attention.

The New York Times decided that the content previously behind the TimesSelect pay wall was worth more monetized through attention, i.e. from search engines, than through subscriber fees.

The web is a dynamic, networked system that can be leveraged — even optimized — to deliver maximum business value to content creators, but unlike traditional content value chains, the economics of content on the web cannot be tightly controlled.

  • The hyperlink wouldn't be worth a darn thing without three important attributes:

    - advertising platforms that reward content creators for people who fill seats (i.e. click on pages and links)
    - the creator's need for attention
    - the promise of income deriving from the reputation that links provide

    You do bring up an important point for visual creators in that the product is the image. It can be difficult to attribute credit to the image in an environment where images are used indiscriminately and frequently. Don't forget, however, that plagiarism is still alive and well and even harder to prevent in a hyperlinked world.

  • Right, why should she cede her control of HER property if she's not getting anything out of it?

  • Well, I do think she has a point about crediting in fair use. I mean, we're all taught in high school that when you use the work of someone else you must cite it; that's simply common practice and even the biggest names in academia get into trouble if they violate those basic rules. When in doubt cite it. There are those people who won't care about reading through the credits, but then again there are those who would care and most likely promote/cite/credit someone else's work in a way that does give someone like Lane Hartwell the deserved attention. Still, I think she is overreacting and should reverse her decision by making it clear that the use of her work needs citation through a link, a comment or whatever. The link is essential and that's a meme than needs spreading.

  • It seems like the big cry baby act over a fair use of her photo in a video is getting her far more attention than a link buried in a list of credits for the video ever would have.

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