RSS Rights and Wrongs: How Do You Tell if Content Reuse is Fair or Foul?

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During Christmas break last year, Asha Dornfest, a writer and mother of two young children, put together a blog that she dubbed Parent Hacks—a place where parents could share child-rearing advice. She set up the blog using TypePad and subscribed to the Feedburner service. Within months, she was getting up to 2,000 hits a day and had 2,100 subscribers. She was feeling pretty good about the whole venture, when in March, Feedburner introduced a new service called Uncommon Uses, which, as the name implies, provides links to sites that could be using your feed in an uncommon fashion. Out of curiosity, Dornfest clicked one of these links and was shocked to discover that another website had scraped her feed without attribution or links back to her site. As if stealing her content weren't enough, the site also placed Google ads on the page, which means it was profiting from it. Not surprisingly, Dornfest was hopping mad. Although there are no hard numbers that document the extent or cost of content theft, it is clear that Dornfest's experience is hardly unique.

RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, provides an outlet for publishers, large and small, like Dornfest, to distribute their content to a wide audience without worrying about email subscriptions or spam filters. Unfortunately, RSS may well have made it easier for unscrupulous website owners to steal content.

While Dornfest's case was clearly out-and-out content theft, other cases are not so clear cut and there is a lot of grey area in the copyright law, which (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act not withstanding) has struggled to keep up with the internet. It's hard for self-publishers to know when referencing another writer's content when the line between fair use and stealing has been crossed, and experts can only agree that Congress has left it deliberately fuzzy, leaving the courts to decide what is proper and what's not.

So what's your average blogger to do without access to a personal intellectual property attorney to sort through the issues? The fact is, even with legal council, it's not always going to be clear if you are doing the right thing when it comes to digital content reuse.

Yours, Mine, and Ours
Bruce Sunstein, an intellectual property attorney at Bromberg & Sunstein in Boston, whose clients include Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, says that the fact that we can all be publishers has made it much easier to repurpose content, but most people have little or no understanding of copyright law. "One of the things that is interesting about copyright is the digital age has made copyright rethink itself," says Sunstein. "It comes up in a lot of ways, but the whole reason for an article [like this] is that everyone can turn themselves into a publisher." He adds that in the past, professionally trained editors vetted everything that was published, and self-publishers usually don't have that capability. "Publishing is a completely different animal today, and it's very easy to take someone else's content and stick it on your feed," Sunstein says.

But publishers like Dornfest publish their feeds using RSS specifically because they want to make their content available to a wide audience, says Rick Klau, VP of business development at Feedburner, an online software company that helps self-publishers syndicate their content and understand the makeup of their audience. This desire to make your content available, and perhaps even share it, muddles the copyright question.

"I think the issue here is what is the purpose of having a feed in the first place, and as the acronym would suggest for RSS, it is syndication. It's trying to make it easy to repurpose your content, and make it available to those who want to consume it. It has the added advantage of being able to republish once someone has access to that content," Klau says. He adds that you can't put a value judgment on RSS as a technology, because it's all about how the re-publisher uses that content. "It's one of those classic cases where the technology is neither good nor bad. It's the intent of the downstream publishers and the actions surrounding that syndication that determine whether or not it's consistent with the original publisher's goals," Klau says.

Chris Matthieu, founder of Numly Numbers, an online software company that enables content owners to embed a date-and-time stamped electronic serial number with all their content, agrees with Klau that the technology is neutral. "RSS isn't bad at all. I think it's an incredible new technology that allows growth in the blogosphere and syndicating media. It's necessary for the technology to grow. It's how plagiarists use the content that's the problem," Matthieu says.

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