How Can we Leverage Corporate Influence to Catalyze the Development and Adoption of an Improved Hypertext Standard?
(to preserve the integrity of key corporate documents, making lawyers generally happy about an otherwise troublesome situation)
Many companies are now using the tools developed for the World Wide Web to
create Intranets to share many types of information among
employees. There are important reasons for the popularity of
Intranets: unparalleled ease of use, low cost (since most
companies already have an installed base of computers), platform
independence, and the availability of off-the-shelf systems that
are easy to set up and maintain.
In order to add a link, a document must be changed.
For dynamic documents like employee benefits and quality
assurance procedures this is generally fine, but in research
environments that generate technical reports this can lead to new
problems that must somehow be addressed.
Traditionally we want technical memos, reports, correspondence, and so forth to be permanent archives, frozen in time. The tradition stems from various practical considerations:
With the advent of hypertext publishing, the rules seem to
have changed. In order to take advantage of the power of
hypertext publishing and enrich the information content of a
document by relating it to other documents, authors need to add
links at some later date. And since (with the current hypertext
standard) links are embedded in the document, the original must
be open to alteration. This opens the door for various other
alterations: fixing a typo here, a grammar correction there,
rephrasing a sentence, . . . and poof(!) - you no longer have the
If a document is published electronically on a company's
Intranet, it can (and probably will) be downloaded to some
client's computer. If the author later changes the original and
posts the change, the changed copy can be downloaded. With
multiple changes and multiple downloads, and the propensity of
certain individuals to print these copies, it is not hard to
envision a proliferation of many versions of documents existing
within a company in both hardcopy and electronic copy form. This
can create a fair amount of confusion for a development team and
a nightmare for the patent attorneys.
In the situation described so far, we've assumed that the
author is the person making the change. Eventually, authors leave
the company and others may take over their projects or at least
refer to their work. It may often be desirable to not only point
to the original author's work, but to point from that work to
other documents. With the original author gone, who has
authorization to make this sort of change? How will the change be
documented? How will previous versions be maintained? How can we
insure that only links are added and the document remains
One solution to Problem 1 is to implement a quality system to prohibit authors from making non-link changes. It is important to realize that it is not necessary to develop a technical solution to absolutely prevent people from making non-link changes. Lawyers, Quality Assurance departments, and ISO 9000 auditors are satisfied as long as there is a system in place and people are trained to comply with the system. The same would apply to Problem 2: develop a quality system prohibiting employees from downloading or printing certain documents. And in Problem 3, a quality system would specify who could add links to documents and what the procedure would be for doing this. This solution is time consuming to implement and difficult to maintain. Records should be kept regarding what links are added, by whom, and when. It also does not completely solve the patent attorney problem that the original document is no longer virgin, even though the browser-visible text is the same except for some underlining and highlighting. And it does not guarantee that people won't make other changes.
Retain a static archive of the original and maintain a modifiable working copy on the Intranet. This doesn't work, because a series of modifications to the dynamic copy may be important steps in leading to a patent. If not saved, your "paper trail" is broken in the patent process. And you are back to the colleague-confusion problem where Jane has a different version than Hank's printout (and the author maybe didn't assign version numbers at the top of each copy for each change).
This is a brute force approach: keep copies of every single revision but only link to the most recent one. The lawyers will love you for this one.
This, of course, is what this proposal has been leading
towards. If the problem is that the links are intrinsic, make
them extrinsic. This concept was articulated by Eric Drexler in his paper Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of
Knowledge. If the links are extrinsic, then the document can
remain in its original form with corrections, comments,
refutations, links to new developments, and so forth added by
anyone. Extrinsic links could be treated as distinct objects with
their own authors. They could be two-way, fine grained (attached
to small chunks of link-author-defined text), and subject to
filtering. This type of system would nicely solve two problems
for us: (1) access restrictions (who can and can't make links
from documents) could be greatly relaxed, and (2) documents could
remain in their original form, cleaning up the paper trail for
patent development and corporate archiving in general. There are
other advantages, but for the purpose of this proposal it is
sufficient to restrict our focus to this narrow range of
advantages for commercial institutions.
Published and maintained by Russell
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