Yet another hotlinking analogy

There is often debate on hotlinking - i.e. non obvious linking from one web page to someone else's for an image or style sheet or some such. The phrase is often used in the context of this being done without the linked site giving permission.

There was a recent discussion on twitter after someone found "The Brandon Bible Forum" had a big splash graphic saying that the css was used from someone else's site without permission. Basically, the original site had changed the CSS that was linked so as to have this extra graphic. Ironic that it is a Bible forum.

As usual the discussion started off calling it stealing (which it is not) and then stealing a little bit of bandwidth and then a matter of ethics or morals.

So, as always, the only way to try and explain this is by some non Internet analogy. The problem with any analogy is it will not be perfect, and you can pick an analogy to suit your view point. So here goes with the latest contrived non-Internet analogy for hot-linking...

Imagine there is a free soup kitchen for homeless people, and round the corner in the same building a cafe. For some historical reason there is actually a door between the two (makes no sense, but makes part of the analogy closer to the Internet equivalent). The cafe offer various things including a "Free soup". You go in and ask for the free soup. The cafe set the table with various extra items but not the soup - they leave a space for that and ask you to pop through this door and ask for a bowl of soup, which you do. You are not going round the front entrance so do not actually realise you are going to the soup kitchen and assume it is part of the cafe (hence the contrived door). Yes, if you look carefully you can see what is happening, but you don't, most customers don't. Similarly the soup kitchen don't really notice where you come from or that you don't look homeless, they just blindly serve soup to anyone that asks for it.

It is, of course, contrived, but works fairly well as an analogy. Clearly what the cafe are doing is not really morally or ethically right, unless the soup kitchen have given permission. The cafe customers don't realise what is going on, and even if they do, they don't know if there is permission or not. They get their soup nicely presented on a cafe table.

But this is clearly not theft - the customer asks for the soup and is given it. No money is asked for. It is free soup on request. It is not what the soup kitchen expected and may not be part of their capacity planning initially, but it is not theft. The cafe are not charging for the soup someone else provided. I cannot see that it is actually illegal, just clearly morally wrong if done without permission but not actually illegal?

However, bear in mind there is a slight error in the analogy. In practice the customer goes to the soup kitchen and says "the cafe sent me, can I have a free soup" but the staff pretty much ignore what people say and hand over soup anyway.

Now in that case it is not as clear cut on the moral/ethics is it. After all the soup kitchen are not being misled at all - they are willingly giving people, that are clearly not their intended audience, free soup, even when told this is the case. It is their choice to ignore what people say and they could start listening. Indeed the cafe are not actually saying the soup is theirs, and people can look around and see it is not - it just gives that impression when presented as part of the cafe table with everything else around it from the cafe.

Now, the soup kitchen could shut down, close the door, stop serving to cafe customers, etc. That would make the cafe look bad just the same as a hotlinked image not loading. The cafe take that risk.

Of course the soup kitchen could serve soup that has "property of soup kitchen" on the bottom of the bowl so that the customers are made very aware of what is going on, and may think less of the cafe. A risk the cafe take, and much like the bible forum and the css splash image.

The soup kitchen could serve special soup to cafe customers with a large beetle in the bottom of it. The bible forum were lucky not to have a goatse on their web page.

So, quite a good analogy all round...

Oh, and as for the argument that it is (mis)using bandwidth (it is not stealing!). That would mean the end user is (mis)using bandwidth from the originator. In practice that only makes sense if the original web site did not want to serve the page. If they do, as clearly they are, even when told who sent you, then the bandwidth is transferred with their permission so not mis use - indeed the chargeable bandwidth will be the served page they choose to send. So if they did not serve the page the bandwidth is very small (the request and answer "no", aka 404) and is the same as anyone else asking for any other page they do not want to serve. It is the inconvenience of a public front door people can knock on, and no different to having a link (href) to someone's page (e.g. saying "go to the soup kitchen down the road") yet people usually (not always) feel having a link is not morally wrong, interestingly enough.

At the end of the day this is not really an issue that needs legal or moral judgement. We don't have to decide if it is right or wrong. If someone hotlinks to your site they are putting you in control of that. You can remove the file, change it, or selectively serve it. You have a really good remedy for their actions and you can use that remedy based on your own set of morals and ethics without having to agree with anyone else's. This is one of those rare cases where there need be no agreement on the matter, which is just as well as people seem to disagree a lot.

I do, however, dislike the misuse of the work "stealing" and "theft" (as well as "piracy"). "Piracy" is not a phrase used much in its proper meaning these days, so is ripe for distortion by new usage. But "theft" and "stealing" are very well understood and long standing terms in regular usage. Copying is not theft or piracy - it is something else - still wrong, but it is not stealing. The reason people call it theft is to try any make it sound a lot more severe than it is, even biblical in the level of wrong doing, when in fact it is usually simply a civil wrong much like someone walking across your garden is trespass. It is wrong, and if more than the odd person does it then it is a problem, but it is not theft.


  1. "Of course the soup kitchen could serve soup that has "property of soup kitchen" on the bottom or the bowel"

    Serving it in that sort of container would surely put off all but the most specialised type of customer!

  2. Just because content is on the Internet, that doesn't mean it's free-for-all. You're right, there are technical steps that could be taken to prevent the hotlinking of the CSS. Or, as in the case in question, steps to embarrass the offender. But just because a site admin doesn't strictly control requesting domains, that doesn't make it okay to load content from other sites. Technical possibility does not equal to ethical correctness.

    If I left my door unlocked, you could walk into my house and watch TV for a while. Sure, I'm not really out anything (except maybe a few cents on my electric bill), but that doesn't make it right. You could correctly argue that I should have locked my door before I left, but that doesn't mean you're allowed to come into my house and watch TV. In both cases, there's a lack of security and no damage. How is one ethical and the other isn't?

    I agree that "stealing" is overly harsh for this particular instance. To be perfectly honest, I was just making a joke about the irony that you pointed out above. I didn't really intend for this to be such a lengthy discussion. I appreciate your willingness to engage me on this, though. It's been fun, if frustrating. I still don't think hotlinking is ethically justifiable, although it appears you disagree?

  3. My point here is that there really is no need for debate or agreement. Anyone that does this takes a risk and anyone offended by it has an excellent remedy against the offender.

    The walking in and watching TV is not a good analogy though as you do not routinely allow strangers to do that, but a web server does routinely, as its main job, serve files to all that request them.

  4. Piracy is a term being used quite a lot this days, especially around the Horn of Africa.

    Personally, I'd have more sympathy with the record labels if they were the victims of real pirates. Perhaps if they'd been held prisoner for a few months, starved, possibly shot and held to ransom, we might all agree that music piracy is bad.

    I'm waiting for other criminal acts to be misappropriated: Musical Murder (many acts do this already), Musical Robbery (what some say iTunes do), Software Riot (what happens when too many open source coders drink Red Bull)

  5. I was touting the term "copyright murder" the other day as a deliberate misuse of a term to highlight how calling it piracy or even theft is just PR.

    Software Riots sound fun though (/me waits to be done under some law for saying that).

  6. Damn blog, I zapped this post..

    I was hoping for more involvement of the Soup Dragon and the Iron Chicken ;)

    fab analogy


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