Joho the BlogLouis Menand, say what??? - Joho the Blog

Louis Menand, say what???

Can someone help me understand how Louis Menand sets up his Oct. 20 piece on copyright in the New Yorker? Menand’s a great writer, and the piece has gone through the NYer’s famous editorial process, so I am confident that it’s my fault that I am stuck staring at a couple of paragraphs not understanding what he’s talking about. I expect to be slapping my forehead momentarily.

Let me tell you why this matters to me, beyond my high expectations for New Yorker writing. When the New Yorker takes the Internet as its subject, it tends to be in the Traditional Resistant camp — although I acknowledge that this may well be just my observer’s bias. Their writers acknowledge the importance of the Net and nod at the good it does, but then with some frequency focus on the negative side, or the over-inflated side. Of course that’s fine. They’ve got some great writers. And Menand is not taking that side in this article. But if Menand’s description of how the Web works is as wildly wrong as it seems to me to be, then it raises some special concerns. If the New Yorker can’t get these basics right, then we have further to go than I’d thought. (Keep in mind that I am not all confident in how I’m reading this passage in the Menand article.)

So, Menand begins by imagining that an anthology called “Most Thoughtful Essays” includes his essay without his permission. Then he asks us to…

…suppose that a Web site, awesomestuff.com, ran an item that said something like “This piece on copyright is a great read!” with a hyperlink on the word “piece” to my article’s page on The New Yorker’s Web site. You wouldn’t think this was banditry at all. You would find it unexceptionable.

Some courts have questioned the use of links that import content from another Web site without changing the URL, a practice known as “framing.” But it’s hard to see much difference. Either way, when you’re reading a linked page, you may still be “at” awesomestuff.com, as clicking the back button on your browser can instantly confirm. Effectively, awesomestuff.com has stolen content from newyorker.com, just as the compiler of “Most Thoughtful Essays” stole content from me. The folks at awesomestuff.com and their V. C. backers are attracting traffic to their Web site, with its many banner ads for awesome stuff, using material created by other people.

When he says “it’s hard to see much difference,” the two cases seem to be awesomestuff.com including a hyperlink “to my article’s page on the NYer’s Web site” and awesomestuff.com embedding the entire article at their site in an iframe. But in the first case (clicking on the normal link) you are taken to NewYorker.com and are not on awesomestuff.com.

Even more confusing, when you’re now at NewYorker.com, clicking the back button will confirm that you were in fact not at awesometuff.com, for the page will change from NewYorker.com to awesomestuff.com. And, if awesomestuff.com has embedded Menand’s article via an iframe, clicking on the back button will take you to whatever page you were at before awesomestuff, thus proving nothing.

Finally, since the point of all this is to show us how linking is equivalent to printing Menand’s article in a paper anthology without his permission, it’s weird that Menand leaves out what is by far the most common case that might be equivalent: when a page neither links to another page nor uses an iframe to embed its content, but simply copies and pastes from another site.

So, as far as I can tell, the most coherent way of taking the words that Menand has written — and he’s a precise writer — contradicts the most basic experience of the Web: clicking on a link and going to a new page.

So where am I going wrong in reading him???

By the way, the rest of the article provides a good general overview of the copyright question, and is sympathetic to the reformist sensibility, although it is surprisingly primer-like for a NYer article. IMO, natch.

4 Responses to “Louis Menand, say what???”

  1. You’re not reading wrong; Menard is writing wrong. He demonstrates a failure to understand what the internet is, much less how it works — and apparently intends to impose his misunderstanding upon the reader.

    Sez his first fail: “When you click on a link, you have the sensation that you no longer are at a place called awesomestuff.com but have been virtually transported to an entirely different place, called newyorker.com.”

    That sensation is your realization of reality. If you were “at a place” before clicking, you are equally “at a place” after clicking, his other wordplay notwithstanding.

    Sez his second fail: “Either way, when you’re reading a linked page, you may still be “at” awesomestuff.com, as clicking the back button on your browser can instantly confirm.”

    No. Not “either” way. Those are two different ways. And his “confirmation” is entirely bogus. That he had wandered off toward “framing” without completing the thought suggests his confusion spans the spectrum from HTTP to servers to browsers.

    If he were talking about complex borrowing by scripting (which is rare), he might conjure up a scenario worth discussing. But he doesn’t know what a link is, or what it does — so, let’s not ask him about code, shall we?

  2. As to your question about how NY’s editorial staff permitted Menand’s failure, I must point out: this is why print media will die of internet. They do little to meet the attacker, while promulgating failed analyses of the basic armaments.

  3. What Menand appears to be saying is the equivalent of declaring: “When you step through the door from the kitchen to the dining room, you may think you’re in the dining room, but you’re in the kitchen all the time, as a step back through the door will reveal.” You’re right – egregious failure to understand how the web works.

  4. Ted Nelson’s original idea for hypertext was that everything was dynamically assembled via a frame-like structure (“transclusion”). So from a historical perspective, Menand is not merely wrong, he is wronger than wrong.


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