TLDR version: donate to help keep WebCite going. Oh, and citation services/URL archive services are fair use.
The long version: I heard about a new citation service/URL archiving service, perma.cc and was excited…until I read the fine print. Still, I think the service will set an important precedent that can only encourage more URL archiving services
Background: The US Supreme often links to online content. For any legal opinion or article that relies on online content, linkrot is a major problem. A Harvard study has found that over 50% of the links used in US Supreme Court opinions are gone (the number is higher for journal articles – 70%). To combat this, the US Supreme Court is printing out a hard copy of every web page that they cite and depositing this hard copy into their paper archives. But for the many people who rely on open online access to court opinions (and that’s a lot of people, both in the US and internationally), once the original website goes down, it is gone. This means that if you’re a nonprofit trying to write an amicus brief you have to hire someone to go to the US Supreme Court to actually look at the stored version. That costs money, time and energy.
The Good and The Bad
The good news is that a group of law school libraries are developing a “screenshot” service that will, eventually, allow them to permanently store a digital copy of a cited page so readers can access the cited material. The problem is that it is designed to only address published material – unless a cite is used in a published legal opinion or journal and the journal editor manually reviews and confirms the citation, it will vanish. How this service (which has not yet been launched) will impact other groups dependent on permanent links is not clear. For example, Wikipedia is the largest online open source encyclopedia. It too suffers from linkrot. But it most likely will not be helped by a service that requires that citations be “published in a journal” and reviewed and approved by the “journal editor” before it is permanently stored. And of course, there are many other types of open source journals (medical, scientific, historical) that might not qualify for this type of “verified” status because they don’t fit the traditional “publish for pay” model or are not affiliated with a university.
WayBack Machine Limits
The WayBack Machine does not solve the linkrot problem because it crawls randomly which means you have no way of knowing if the page you are citing will end up there. Or even worse, once there, if someone buys the domain name and “parks” it, they can contact the WayBack Machine to retroactively remove all the archived content as the new domain owners. In fact, there is only one service that has, for the past decade, allowed writers who are citing online material to create a static snapshot of a page: WebCite. And they've been doing this reliably and for free. Not surprisingly, one of their largest users is, in fact, Wikipedia.
WebCite’s Support Of Wikipedia
The service, WebCite, now needs help updating their service. They must move to the cloud in order to manage their increasingly large data flow. They estimate that they need to raise $25,000 to hire a developer to make this migration happen. Once there, they hope to continue offering the service for free (although they are exploring offering additional services for subscribers to create permanent funding sources for the service).
Personally, I love the idea of an institutionally run, permanent citation service like perma.cc – the more the merrier. Data thrives on redundancy and we cannot have too many online archives. If only perma.cc would also allow Wikipedia citations to be stored permanently...... While I understand why the law schools funding this effort would want to cater to professionally published and recognized journals (their “bread and butter”), I am disappointed that open source research, education and teaching continues to be overlooked and under-supported.
I can only hope that services like WebCite will continue to operate. Because Wikipedia is the second best democratic and open source knowledge tool that has ever existed (after the invention of the printing press). It just needs to continue to have access to the infrastructure (like WebCite) to support it.
About That Important Precedent That I Mentioned
Another good thing to come from the perma.cc service: it has looked into the legality of URL citation services and.....well, let’s just assume that 9 out of 10 law schools that are backing this service agree that it is fair use. And just in case anyone questions whether it is “legal” to create a snapshot of a web page for citation purposes – well, if you want to march up to the US Supreme Court and tell them they are doing it wrong, feel free. But I suspect that these type of archived pages will be considered fair use (in the US) whether you are a “for pay article,” or “a free article” used in either a “published” or “open source” service/journal (such a Wikipedia). The key will be, as always, the intended purpose of the “use.” Archiving by educational, research and nonprofit entities is a traditionally supported and appropriate use. Perma.cc’s About page points to this 2007 law article discussing the legal issues surrounding citation snapshot services:
“However, fair use instances remain unquestioned when the work is used for educational nonprofit archival purposes and when the archival has no economic impact upon the work’s marketability. The goal of the URL archives fits squarely in this latter situation – it is both educational and nonprofit…. the digital archive stores only works that can be freely accessible on the web because their authors had posted them on the web with the intent that they be freely accessed. Because the archived works are freely posted on the Internet by their authors, with no expectation of compensation, but with the understanding that they will be accessed freely by users by using such free search engines as Google, the Supreme Court’s admonition that this factor is the most important and decisive could not be more fully satisfied. To that extent, the defense of fair use [for this type of service] “seems preordained.”
PS. For a dose of humor, Slate says that "perhaps the best way way to illustrate the problem is with the rather (intentonally) hilarious "404 error" message that resides at a hyperlinked address found in a 2011 Supreme Court opinion penned by Justice Samuel Alito Jr." You can see it here.