On linking to ephemeral pages

Rick Bruner, a trusted business colleague, emailed me a pointer to an article on blog search engines published by the Wall Street Journal, with a caveat that the link would only work for seven days before the article was pushed into the paid member archive. I’m a paid subscriber, so I don’t much worry about that, but he also told me something I hadn’t realized that won’t mean anything to you unless you too are a subscriber: the “email this story” URL is actually a publicly accessible link.
When I cite the Wall Street Journal, I include the link to the story itself — not using the “email this story” URL — and simply add [members only] or [pay site] or similar.
Two ways to link to the story, but both have their limitations, problems that I really encountered when researching business articles recently for my upcoming IBM trade business book (whose name might well be changing, so I won’t list it her). Bloggers like to talk about permalinks, permanent page addresses that will always point to the article referenced, but I’d like to ask a different question: how do we link to ephemeral items or information behind a wall of one sort or another?

There’s something dissatisfying about linking to a temporary URL with a note like [note: this link will only work until 17 September, 2006] somehow. It seems to violate the whole spirit of the Web, somehow, particularly as a business communications vehicle.
Consider the reference section for my upcoming book: one of the unstated assumptions of any citation is that unless it’s a “personal interview”, someone else can always dig up the article, story, book or blog entry cited and see if they agree with the conclusions and derived facts and quotes in the new material. In academia especially, information is expected to be permanent.
But what happens if I have some outrageous claim about, say, the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, with a list of citations to grant me credibility and legitimacy, but they’re all ephemeral and cannot be duplicated? Even personal conversations can, with few exceptions, be researched.
Even pointing to resources that are behind a paid membership wall seems less offensive, less a violation of the spirit and intent of the Web. If I have to pay $899 for a research report so I can check your facts in the resultant 300 page PDF report, at least I can do just that if I’m so inclined.
What do you think about this, dear reader? If you’re a blogger, do you link to items that you know have a finite life-span, and if so, how do you warn your readers? If you don’t, how do you imagine you’d approach this problem if encountered in the future?
As for me, i think I’ll stick to the members-only Wall Street Journal links and leave the ephemeral linking to other bloggers. I’m writing this article with the hope that it’ll be read, commented upon, and discussed across the next few years, not just the next seven days.

12 comments on “On linking to ephemeral pages

  1. Glad you’ve posted about this. As you ask, I get irritated when I click on a link and it’s a subscription only link, or worse, an expired, site not found link. I’m mildly irritated even when it’s a site that needs a free subscription. Basically, these links are not ‘real blog links’ because, as you point out, they are not permalinks in the way bloggers understand that. I may have used some such links in the past. My approach now is to avoid, as far as possible, using them, even with warnings: if I want to post about an item, chances are someone else will also and then if possible I will link to that blog, especially if it includes a referenced summary of the issues – e.g. linking to your post here on these issues, where you link in turn to Rick etc. Not academically or even perhaps journalistically rigorous, but hey, I’m not an academic or a journalist.

  2. I avoid at all costs linking to anything that is temporary or not available to everyone for free. Yes, that lets out a lot of newspaper web sites. Google News handles it by putting (subscription) after the link to the source.
    If I must use a link that requires a registration, I either use BugMeNot.com (a list of usernames and passwords to get into web sites), or enter in totally fake information. The great mailinator.com web site helps with this. It allows for the creation of dynamic email addresses, no passwords or registration needed.

  3. The fact that “email this article” would create a public link was also new to me, especially since I only get my WSJ in the old world format.
    Giving the email link is a good way to allow anyone to view the article, although I couldn’t have created the link w/o Rick’s help.
    When I read a good article in WSJ (for example) I will usually quote the best lines, and link to where the article lives online…even if I can’t read it myself. (Always makes me wonder if I AM giving the correct link, of course.)
    I do the same with MarketingProfs; a Web site with great marketing material. Often the best article is “premium content”. I’ll link to the story directly, but mention that this requires membership. (I often recommend that people drop some coin to join up.)
    I don’t have a problem with companies charging for their content or research, so if we want to reference it, I guess we’ll just have to link to the protected area, even if all our readers can’t access it.
    Do you think I should have created two links? One with the email and one with the “true” member only link? I thought about it, but it seemed like overkill.

  4. I am not a blogger, merely a reader. Don’t bother with any link that isn’t free – not even registration. If it isn’t a clean link then don’t use it. If the material is important and not clean to all, then quote the part you need and site the source. If its bigger than you want to include in the text then put it in a footnote or endnote. I don’t think that it takes that much more time to cut and paste than to create a link. Size may be a consideration but I would prefer to have everything in one place. Just my opinion.

  5. Hi, Dave
    I agree that it’s important to link to source material so that readers can go see your sources for themselves and form their own opinions.
    In that regard, the problem is not simply a matter of permanent vs. ephemeral links. Online content can be altered or changed at any time. Also, on some sites, URLs are session-specific or query-specific — which can complicate direct linking.
    This is why I use Furl to save a copy of every page I link to or have used as source material. That way, I have a record of how it looked at the time I cited it. I’ve found this valuable on several occasions.
    While I can’t directly share my archived pages via Furl (copyright and all that), I have on occasion sent screenshots to specific individuals with specific queries about my source materials.
    Still, though, my preference is to only cite sources which I can link to directly via permalink to an open-access page. Anything other than that entails some level of complexity/annoyance for my audience. That could hurt my perceived credibility, transparency, and user-friendliness.
    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, Contentious

  6. Hmmm…. what are the legal implications of you having Furl make a copy of every page, particularly pages that are behind a paid firewall like the Wall Street Journal?

  7. Furl.net is brilliant but may end up as copyright roadkill.
    While the archiving issue is unresolved, It is likely that the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) would prohibit posting to Furl.net. The fundamental issue that clobbered Grokster and KaZaa was the courts’ perception that those operators understood the shared materials were largely copyright protected. Furl.net must be on notice that this is so, too. Furl.net won’t be able to argue immunity or inapplicability of the DMCA because the posting of even your own pages is hardly a “transitory communication.” And under most judical interpetations of “fair use,” the posting of the entire webpage would not be considered insubstantial. An excerpt might be “fair use,” though. Moreover, Furl.net cannot take advantage of the counduit limits on liability under the DMCA because it provides broad search capabilities and other features inconsistent with a mere conduit.
    I have read the disclaimer posted on Furl.net. Nevertheless, I conclude that Furl.net is on tenuous ground. If Furl.net has an opinion letter from an attorney that is contrary to my legal conclusions, perhaps it would be in their (and particularly their users) interests to be “transparent” and post that opinion (and identifying their attorney) on their website. After all, if even Furl.net and their attorney recognize this to be a “grey area” don’t their users have a right to know that before they find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit? Previously the RIAA and other copyright holders went after system operators. Now they are targeting individuals as well.
    Furl.net has at least one troubling portion of its Terms of Use which purport to give them a license to reproduce your materials or the copyrighted works of others: “With regard to Content you Upload for inclusion in any publicly accessible areas of the Service, you hereby grant Furl the worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and non-exclusive license to use, reproduce, modify, translate, display, create derivative works from, and publish such Content on or in connection with the Service.”
    By far, the real issue with Furl.net is not copyright. A close reading of the Terms of Use for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Online and other such services is that posting on Furl.net or a similar service is a violation of the WSJ Terms of Use and may expose you (and Furl.net) to payment of licensing fees or prosecution. Here are the pertinent sections of the Wall Street Journal’s Terms of Use and Subscriber Agreement:
    Excerpted from the Wall Street Journal Online Subscriber Agreement: Limitations on Use – “… You may display or print the content available through the Services for your personal, non-commercial use only … You agree not to sell, publish, distribute, retransmit or otherwise provide access to the content received through the Services to anyone … with the following … exceptions: (i) You may occasionally distribute a copy of an article, or a portion of an article, from a Service in non-electronic form to a few individuals without charge …”
    Further: “You agree not to create abstracts from, scrape or display headlines from our content for use on another web site or service. You agree not to post any content from the Services to newsgroups, mail lists or electronic bulletin boards, without our written consent.”
    Excerpted from the Wall Street Journal Online Terms of Use: “… You may download, reformat and print a limited amount of WSJ.com content for your personal, non-commercial use … Any other reproduction of WSJ.com content requires permission from us, and some forms of reproduction will require you to pay a licensing fee….”
    The WSJ is not alone in these policies. Lexis.com, for example, goes further and explicitly restricts the storage of any downloaded information to less than 90 days: “… With respect to all Materials other than Authorized Legal Materials and Authorized Patent Materials, the right to retrieve via downloading commands of the Online Services and store in machine-readable form for no more than 90 days, primarily for one person’s exclusive use, a single copy of insubstantial portions of those Materials included in any individual file …”

  8. Even more “on-topic,” if you read the WSJ’s Subscriber Agreement you will note they do not agree that you could post an “E-mail this” link:
    “… You may occasionally use our ‘E-mail This’ service to e-mail an article from a Service to a few individuals, without charge. You are not permitted to use this service for the purpose of regularly providing other users with access to content from a Service …”

  9. I agree with Amy.
    Ephemeral links turn to no links at all, thus are pseudo links, fragile vaporous bridges with planned obsolesence, an expiration date.
    I will not link to any source that requires registration, payment or subscription.
    Paid content is contrary to the spirit of the web. Any content that has a cost attached to it is available somewhere online for free, if you know how to find it.

  10. I find some irony in the idea that any content that has a price tag attached to it must perforce not be in “the spirit of the web”. In fact, the Web and the Internet wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for commercial interests, shopping sites, and so on. Everyone makes their own decisions: I’m willing to pay to access top writing and reporting if need be, and I certainly don’t condone “free or worthless” as a measure, Steven.

  11. Clearly Dave either wasn’t alive or wasn’t a computer user in the ’80s.
    The Internet was alive and well before it was commercialized. It was also very useful, with tons of content, and very little fluff. One might even argue–and many have–that commercialization, while popularizing the medium, also screwed it up royally.

  12. That’s an amusing comment, Michael. As it happens, I helped architect the commercial Internet, including being involved with the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX), being an administrator of one of the main UUCP backbones (hplabs), being part of the group that renamed the Usenet newsgroups into the seven major hierarchies, and so on.
    While there’s a certain level of nostalgia in talking about the pre-commercial Internet, the fact is that it had lots of *data* but wasn’t very useful or interesting as a commercial or business venue. It was an educational network.

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