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Comunidades, English, Gestión del conocimiento, Gestión e innovación

Authors rights and common work: an ethical conundrum

Here’s a practical question for those of you who know or manage communities, especially those that actually produce “knowledge objects” worth mentioning.

Picture this. A conversation starts (a forum thread). Several dozen people participate. The result is a hugely interesting and professionally valuable piece of text, tens of pages long, written during months of exchange.

Life goes on in the community, and several such threads are produced. Then, one of the members decides to pull out every single one of her messages.

Regardless of the specific rights set in the terms of use, do you believe she has a moral right to do so?

As far as I can see, there are two possible answers:

1. The libertarian or “Wellsian” answer. “You own your own words”, as the old The Well community believed, and you can take them back whenever it suits you, regardless of reasons or results.

2. The communitarian or “common work” answer. “A message is not a complete work” about sums it up. Since a message is just a part of a conversation (depends on it for its start and its context and its meaning) it doesn’t give the author of the message a right to maul the resulting thread.

It may not surprise you, but as a “serial author” I’ve always subscribed to the first point of view. The Macuarium terms of use are built on its implications, even if they consecrate some management discretion.

And yet… this week we’ve been talking at our facilitator forum. We’ve been thinking about the solution to the occasional user who actually does pack up and erase her messages… and in the process gouges knowledge objects worth keeping. Because we don’t have a policy, and sometimes we let them rip, and sometimes we stop them. And talking it over, the emerging consensus (not unanimity) is edging closer and closer to the “communitarian” philosophy. Which worries me. A bit.

In short, it seems that the facilitators would prefer allowing full edition rights to everybody… except when someone is manifestly on a rip, and susceptible to cause damage (a rare and detectable event). Then, they condone blocking the edition rights. Sounds practical and simple, but the implications are serious.

What do you think about this? Any experiences or opinions?



9 comentarios en “Authors rights and common work: an ethical conundrum

  1. I support the second option. Not least to protect the community against the vexatious author who would use the demand to withdraw their contributions as a weapon of spite dressed up as principle, as libertarians are want to do upon losing an argument.

    The best solution would be to open up your forums to internet archiving ( google cache, wayback machine etc ) so that once out, the ability to un-post is not a possibility. There is also a copy in every subscriber’s inbox presumably.

    Publicado por andyroberts | enero 18, 2008, 10:46 pm
  2. This is a really interesting question.

    Is the community simply the aggregate of the individual contributions or is it more than the sum of individual activities? Do participants have an obligation / responsibility to each other as well as rights for themselves?

    I tend towards the communitarian approach in collaborative environments. Whereas the libertarian approach to something like blogging makes much more sense.

    An email such as ACT-KM or com-prac makes an interesting contrast. Participants cannot delete their messages from the history of threads. They are there for the duration.

    I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this but it depends on the nature & norms of the group.

    Publicado por Matt Moore | enero 19, 2008, 1:18 am
  3. OK second attempt after the system ate it. I think there is no right answer to this question. As participants in a social system we have both rights for ourselves and responsibilities to others.

    Groups such as ACT-KM and com-prac do not allow individuals to pull all their posts from the records (as far as I know). Where as a blogger can pretty much do what they like with their writing.

    The issue is less: what is the answer? and more how do we get to a result we can all live with?

    Publicado por Matt Moore | enero 19, 2008, 1:24 am
  4. I’m also with the communitarian end of the spectrum – contributions to a community space are public property in that space, and cannot be unsaid, attempting to change the community’s history by “unsaying” them through deleting messages is a destructive act contrary to the spirit of the original contribution, quite apart from the fact that they arose out a context created by the gathering of people in conversation.

    But I’m curious why the communitarian approach worries you Miguel. I’m assuming you have good reasons for it.

    As to being a question of rights and ethics, there are no absolutes here. The rights are what the community gives itself and its members. But there does seem to me to be a contradiction between the wish to participate in a public space of the community and a claim that one has the right to impose secrecy/forgetting on that participation.

    Publicado por Patrick Lambe | enero 19, 2008, 7:09 am
  5. Hi Andy, Matt, Patrick,

    thanks for your point of view, it comes in useful.

    My reasons for being unconfortable with the communitarian view are rather old. Ideas that date back to when I started with these things, and I’d never revisited really. A person should have a right to withdraw from an association, and take his work with him: I kind of feel that my work is part of me, and having it locked anywhere… irks. But Cops are common-work environments (at least the conversation part) so that idea is much more appropriate, as Matt says, in non-common-work situations.

    It’s kind of being told, OK you can vote with your feet, but your shoes stay here.

    Imagine you stop being happy with a community’s policies or behaviour. You don’t want to be a part of it. But you can’t help your text and work staying on, and providing valuable help to the existence of the community (as part of valuable objects and conversations that draw people in). You have no real leverage against the community. Kind of your name being used to sell a product, when you’re no longer backing it.

    That said, I agree with all you’ve been saying. That is the problem :-).

    Couldn’t there be a sort of “justified withdrawal conditions” that allow it when it is really fair? I mean, it’s evidently unfair when the user is actually still benefiting from the work of the rest. It’s evidently unfair when it’s the product of a fit of pique. But is there no situation in which it could be justified?

    Any thoughts?

    Best regards,


    Publicado por Miguel | enero 20, 2008, 6:27 pm
  6. I tend towards communitarian as well, but context matters. If it a corporation that sponsors, I may feel less “communitarian” about them making hay off of my ideas and if they do something I don’t like, I’d like to pull my words. So I too can see both sides.

    One way around this is to summarize and reify really good threads. Once something is mashed up, it is hard to pull out individual contributions. But that may also be taking advantage of the members’ words.

    Finally, it seems important that people know the implications of their participation as best they can from the start.



    Publicado por Nancy White | enero 21, 2008, 3:55 am
  7. You wont’ be surprised to hear I’m with the communitarians! Stick a CC licence on it and make it clear. And if (when, I’ve seen it) your retractors moan and demand to own the ideas we share and the air we breathe, point out to them that a retraction on the site is worthless as it may be related to a list, or RSS feeds etc.

    Also check whether the site can actually remove all the posts (some can’t – not just facebook).

    Why are they there in public discussing stuff if they are going to lose the plot and complain later? Because they have lost the plot – therefore they aren’t being rational.

    Nancy has a point – what is the model of the community? Is it members only? Practically will lead ethically – Who owns it? What are the terms and conditions? Look at the legal stuff. I believe the BBC owns the rights to everything that is said on their boards and can do anything with it. Other sites I’ve worked on retain the right to publish it once but it’s the participants.

    But this is a behaviour and manners thing which can’t be pinned to a T&C.

    Duh – half way through a laboured point and have to run away… sorry!

    Good point though

    Publicado por Ed | enero 21, 2008, 2:19 pm
  8. I think it all boils down to who owns the content. For the answer to be the community, the community should really have the tools for keeping it. And having moderators with full editing rights I think it does not empower the community.

    If the community is not the one moderating the content, then the user, as you agree, has every right to edit his content while he is not against the terms of use.

    If you want to bring morality to the debate, one has to take into account not only the morality of someone taking content off a forum thread, but also what triggers that behaviour.

    In any case, I think being able to edit, but with a history of what was edited, à la wiki, works best, being the total, untraceable deletion of a history the last resort, possibly only available to admins, and only under request the owner of a message.

    Publicado por juandesant | febrero 4, 2008, 2:39 pm


  1. Pingback: Author vs community (II): Hostage taking and reaction « eme ká eme - febrero 1, 2008


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