I get this question surprisingly often: so often that I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of just how the World Wide Web works.
So to be clear:
- You don’t need to ask.
- YES! YES! A THOUSAND TIMES YES!
And that’s not just for Ask Leo!. That’s for any link to any page you find on the internet. Really. You may link to anything without asking.
Let me explain why that is.
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Linking is not copying
People fear they’re somehow breaking copyright law, or perhaps the author’s intent, when they “copy” a link to an article and post that link somewhere else.
That’s not the case at all.
First, copying a link is not the same at all as copying the entire article. A link is nothing more than a reference to the original article, wherever it might be publicly posted. That means in order to read the post you’re linking to, people click on your link to visit that webpage.
For example, if you click on the link below, you’ll be taken to a different page on a different website:
There you would read whatever the article is that I’ve posted there. The content of that article has not been copied; merely its “internet address”.
Sharing that link far and wide is not only completely allowed (without needing to ask), but, as we’ll see shortly, probably encouraged. The fact that the content has been published on a publicly accessible webpage is all the permission you need.
Copying without permission is wrong
The alternative is to actually copy the content of that web page. So if, instead of sending someone a link, I sent them these words…
Netiquette or “net etiquette” is a standard of rules and behaviors that are best practices for interacting with others on the internet. This includes behavior in chat rooms, in forums, on message boards, in email, and other mediums.
An example of good netiquette is not typing in all capital letters. When reading text in all caps, many people internalize that as shouting without even thinking about it and react accordingly. All caps should be used only for emphasis or when you’re trying to convey that you are shouting.
… I have copied the content of the web page. If that content had been written by someone else and I claimed it as my own, that would be plagiarism. But without permission, even copying with complete attribution is wrong, and quite possibly in violation of international copyright law.
In practical terms, you’ve deprived the author of a visitor to his site. In real terms, you’ve used his or her content without permission – also known as stealing – and placed it in contexts over which he or she has no control. In the worst case, the author may not even want to be associated with wherever it is you’ve copied his work.
So if you want to actually copy or republish the work itself – say, in a printed newsletter or webpage of your own – you must ask permission first. And this is true for just about anything you find on the web, including articles, portions of an articles or blog posts, photographs, graphic images, music, and more.
But if all you want to do is share or publish a link to that information on the author’s original site – no need to ask. Share away.
Embedding can be sharing
The concept of “embedding” can confuse the issue somewhat.
For example, most YouTube videos offer what’s called an “embed code” that you can use to embed a video on your own web page. When available, embed codes give you implicit permission to use them to place that content on your own site.
Embedding is different than copying: it references the author’s original content to make it appear on your site, rather than making a copy of it.
Permission can be pre-defined
If content is published with what’s called a “Creative Commons” license that defines the terms under which you are allowed to copy the content for your own use. Creative commons licensed content will typically say so explicitly somewhere, or will include the circled “CC”, similar to the circled C – © – of a copyright notice.
Some sites include explicit terms for sharing content. Ask Leo! is a great example – my terms of service include explicit instructions defining exactly how much of an article you may copy, and under what conditions. Anything more, and you simply need to ask.1
Similarly, the podcast episodes for another project I work on, HeroicStories, includes explicit permission, with some conditions, to share each of those podcast episodes.
So check the site you’re looking at for pre-defined terms and conditions – you may find you don’t need to ask to copy content, as long as you meet some conditions. If you don’t find it, however, you must ask permission.
But you never need to ask to share a link to that content.
Sharing is caring
Web publishers survive on getting noticed. In order to survive as a publisher, we need people to find our sites, read our content, see our ads, buy our products, or follow our mission.
Sharing links is arguably the single most important thing you can do to show support for a web site or share the information that the website contains. That way, the author is rewarded for their work and encouraged to do more of it.
Even when it’s work you disagree with, linking to it is still the only proper way to share it with others.
And you never need to ask. Just link.