Is Your Digital Life Ready for Your Death?

Why Leslie Harpold’s Sites Disappeared

Leslie had a special kind of magic. But today there’s no trace of her sites.

As long as those sites were up, her brand of humanity was alive, pure, unedited and quenching. The availability of her writing made her slightly less absent. Sad isn’t really an appropriate construct for missing Leslie. And sappy sentimentality wouldn’t please her at all.

But that writing should remain on the Internet. Those sites should never come down. They belong here like Leslie belonged here. Immortal.

A little over three years ago, the web designer and online essayist died at age 40. Leslie was a friend of mine, part of a circle of early web creators who discovered the medium as it was blossoming in the mid-’90s. We hung out together on a private mailing list for a decade watching the web (and ourselves) grow up. Leslie left behind a vast body of online work in the form of essays, web sites, weblog entries and photos.

Since that time, almost all of it has disappeared.

Leslie’s family allowed her domains smug.com, harpold.com and others to expire and politely turned down all requests to mirror her sites. Several of her friends, including me, had offered after her death to pay the costs required to keep them online.

The recent death of Brad Graham, another early web publisher, has renewed interest in the fate of Leslie’s work. I sent an email yesterday to Leslie’s niece, asking if it would be possible for some of her friends to reprint her work as a book and web site. Today I heard back. They will not allow anything to be republished. Because I’ve been told that some of her writings might be a sensitive issue for her family, I replied to her niece that if this is indeed the case, those particular works could be excluded from reprint.

This did not go over well.

I was told that it’s none of my business why her family doesn’t want her work republished, which is absolutely true, and that her legacy “is not dependent on websites or books; her legacy is with every person who knew her and loved her.” This is only partially true. Leslie was an early pioneer in the creation of autobiographical content and experimental web design. She left behind thousands of web pages, many of which are as memorable as Possible Scenarios for Heaven from 2003.

Leslie’s family appears to have decided to let her entire body of work disappear and be forgotten completely. The only things that are left online are articles she wrote for other sites, such as The Morning News.

This raises an important question for those of us who create work on the web that we publish ourselves. When heirs decide to bury a web creator’s body of work by shuttering sites and rejecting all republication requests, can anything be done to save the material?

If the heirs of Charles Dickens had decided that his novels were not his legacy, they could have spurned all publishers and let the books fall out of print, but the existing copies would not have vanished entirely. There still would be physical copies of the books to read and some would’ve survived long enough to fall into the public domain.

For works created on the web, however, the only thing keeping them around is an active publisher or a copyright license that permits others to reprint the material. A copyright holder who wanted a web site to disappear completely could take it offline, demand its removal from all archives and never allow republication. Leslie’s work will not begin passing into the public domain until 2065.

Perhaps this is the way it should be. No one has found an email or web page where Leslie stipulated her desires for her work in the event of her death, leaving the decision to her heirs.

But everything I learned about Leslie over the years tells me that she’d want this part of her to survive.

Eleanore

Eleanore

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