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Are You Open or Closed?
Mar 31, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

About a week and a half ago now, Salon, a high profile web-based culture magazine, caused a stir on some web-design mailing lists when they swiped some HTML from The Fray, an independent webzine run by a single guy, Derek Powazek. Salon added an entrance tunnel to Courtney Weaver's weekly sex-column, Unzipped, which looked an awful lot like a piece by Alexis Massie posted on The Fray. So much like it that the HTML -- down to the pixel widths of the frames describing the page -- was nearly exactly the same. I wrote a Netly News article on the whole affair, pitting the creative "little guy" against the code-swiping behemoth.

Of course, the story made for great copy. But while the brouhaha dies down, the fundamental issues remain. Can a designer lay claim to tags? Is it more than just irresponsible for someone to swipe another person's HTML? And just how long will HTML stay an open, view-source-able language?

As I chronicled a while back in my Obvious pieces on David Siegel's book "Creating Killer Websites," HTML is quickly evolving from an information markup language (this document has a header, put <h1> tags around it) to a page layout language (this document needs a space right here, let's use a blank table cell that's 300 pixels high and 250 pixels wide). Throw in some JavaScript and cascading style sheets for good measure, and we're a hell of a long way away from Kansas.

And as the language gets more complex, the number of high priests and priestesses that can create the kind of well-rendered pages that grace sites like The Fray will diminish rapidly. Heck, I can turn a page white, and I can manage a table or two. But if I wanted to create a framed page split six ways from heaven, with JavaScript onmouseover events for changing images, and a function which checks which browser the user is surfing with, I'd be out of luck.

Unless, of course, I decided to swipe somebody else's code.

This used to be a no-brainer -- want to know how to right-align an image? Need the hex code for dark blue? Look at what someone else was doing. But what if I want to do exactly what Powazek is doing? Or what Suck used to do, for that matter? Have I crossed the line?

Powazek would argue that I have crossed the line, and that I've moved into an arena where copyright laws start applying to HTML. The tags that define his page are his, and his alone. "More and more we are going to be able to create things in web pages that are unique expressions of art. ... The more control designers are given to work on web pages, the more the old rules won't apply," he argues.

I respect Derek's work, and his desire to have credit given where credit is due. And obviously, Salon should have known better than to swipe HTML line for line, pixel for pixel. But if the "old rules won't apply," what are the new rules? If a designer can rightly lay claim to a particular set of tags, what does the future of web design look like? Here's a potential scenario...

*** Step One: Call out the lawyers.

Cease and desist letters seem to be fairly common occurrences when it comes to borrowed content. But if the designer can lay claim to a page of code like a poet can lay claim to a stanza, we could see a rash of legal activity and a fresh debate over fair use.

*** Step Two: Close down the browser.

The browser makers, reacting to the protests of companies who actually buy their web servers and publishing tools, decide to lock up the browser to protect content. Imagine a browser without the ability to view source or "save as," where the only thing you can do with its content is copy and paste the actual words in the browser window. This is a distinct possibility -- you can't view source on a WebTV box, and designers have been screaming for the ability to force a full-screen "chromeless" window of content on their viewers, basically shutting out all the traditional menu functions of a browser. Even with the naked HTML screaming around the net today, it's sometimes an arduous task to get at the code behind a nifty-trick like HotWired's floating toolbar; it takes a little more work than point-and-click.

*** Step Three: Make way for the decompilers.

Assuming that the fundamental technology behind the WWW doesn't change, and we're still sending raw ASCII HTML around the Internet, designers could just intercept the packets coming into their machine to take a look at the ugly code behind the pretty face. But some enterprising young CS major would instead just build an HTML decompiler, which would enable folks to view source in the privacy of their own home, without hacking into their browser cache. There could be a whole product category of HTML decompilers; a subscription based product that keeps up with the latest changes in browser functionality, HTML and designer preference. Heck, sounds like the perfect Marimba app to me.

All of this, of course, is a bit far-fetched; but as the Web morphs from a communication platform to an applications platform, HTML is going to evolve along with it. It's only a matter of time before content providers start looking at themselves as application providers, and create their own version of the Software Publishers Association to hunt down transgressors and dole out suitable punishment.

In the meantime, I'm going to tend to my own sites of borrowed content, wait for the cease and desist letters to come, and start working on my decompiler business plan...



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