Digital Attribution: Copyright and the Right to Credit


In a 1951 article in Science magazine, librarian Ralph Shaw argued that copyright law paid insufficient attention to the attribution interests of authors. Shaw observed that the straightforward pecuniary interests of publishers diverged from the more complex reputation-based interests of authors. He noted how authors and publishers might have differing views regarding the benefits of providing thousands of copies of a work for “free distribution.” Of course, since Shaw had pointed out that no sensible publisher would be interested in giving away such free works, the example he used was fanciful at the time. Today times have changed. The World Wide Web delivers a hyperlinked high-speed information environment that Shaw could not have imagined. Most importantly, just as Shaw predicted, authors are now giving away thousands—even millions—of free “reprints” and realizing what Shaw described as “a great additional profit… in terms of professional credit.” Copyright law, for various reasons, has largely ignored this fact. Shaw's “right to credit” is still as much a fantasy as the World Wide Web was half a century ago. This article takes up Ralph Shaw's call for a right to credit in a new era of networked information systems. Copyright law should be adjusted to take into account the growing importance of open access forms of copyright creation and reputation economies. Prioritizing the legal importance of attribution in copyright is a change that is long overdue. The contemporary digital environment provides an opportunity and an important additional reason to revisit Shaw's salient distinction between the motivations of authors and publishers.


Intellectual Property Law

Date of this Version

July 2006