Blogs: Some Rights Reserved

Martin Schwimmer publishes The Trademark Blog. He’s an attorney working with clients to (among other things) ensure material they create is protected and they’re rewarded appropriately when the material is used. Schwimmer’s blog is a great resource. It covers many topics expertly and succinctly and takes legal concepts and translates them well into layperson’s terms.

And therein lies the problem.

Corporate blogs are a growing phenomenon. These are blogs written by high-ranking executives at particular companies about the industries they work in. For instance, two SEO (define) blogs recently launched, one from Reprise Media, the other from icrossing. The marketing idea behind the blogs is simple, and expressed well by Bob Cargill, senior creative director (and blogger) for direct marketing agency Yellowfin: “We’re ‘expertizing’ ourselves, so that when people think of direct marketing, they’ll think of me and of Yellowfin.” By running blogs, the companies hopes to more firmly establish themselves as experts on their particular topic; they want to be a source. The net result is an increasing amount of highly qualified thought on any given subject matter, available for free on the blogs themselves or via RSS (define).

And therein lies the rest of the problem.

To handle this increasing amount of content, people are turning to aggregator services, such as Bloglines, PubSub, and Technorati. These help users compile many feeds on particular subjects into one interface. However, the services generally provide only the post content, not the entire interface that content comes from.

In Schwimmer’s case, the content was disassociated from the marketing messages he places around the blog’s frame. Though Bloglines doesn’t currently offer ads, one can easily see a future where they would, using his content to help target consumers.

The question: Is this fair use of an RSS feed? Schwimmer decided he didn’t want to participate in this model and requested his feed be removed from Bloglines.

Feeding Frenzy

RSS is a fantastic technology. It quickly, effectively, and elegantly allows for free-flowing ideas. The vision of the Internet as an enormous, collaborative space gets a great boost from RSS. But in a services/information economy, workers need to be rewarded for their labor, if they want. Businesses that make money from advertising must view the supply of content as a cost.

There’s a business model available now for anyone who wants it: Register a domain and get some server space. Pick a topic. Any topic. Kittens. Princesses. Kitten Princesses. Use a search engine to find a number of relevant feeds. Sign up with a contextual advertising system. And you’re off. After a little while, you’ll most likely get a high position for “Kitten Princess” searches.

Fair Use of RSS

Now, is that fair? It’s possible, of course. But does it feel like a reasonable business? If you’re going into business as a middleperson, you have an onus to provide value to the chain. One could argue aggregation is a value, but that’s pretty slim. (I’m speaking generally here, not about RSS aggregators. Aggregators provide fantastic value, particularly in search and notification services.)

Many comments Schwimmer has received are along the lines of, “If you don’t like it, you shouldn’t use RSS.” This is a totally unfair position. Just because RSS makes the model easy doesn’t make it OK. It just makes enforcing a content owner’s preferences for use more difficult.

“Some Rights Reserved”

The quality of content contained in blogs and RSS feeds is growing rapidly. Where there’s value, there will be businesses. Blogs may currently represent the collective brain concept of the Internet, but commerce never lags far behind in these things.

What to do? Schwimmer saw his options as all-or-nothing, and that’s too bad. Bloggers should be able to exert some control over their content’s use. I’m inspired by the concepts behind Creative Commons. This nonprofit works as a third party between content creators and content repurposers. Creative Commons allows bloggers (or whomever) to create a license designating the type of uses they allow for their content.

Right now, it’s a voluntary system, not law. Content repurposers would have to agree to follow the license’s rules. Realistically, they probably won’t. But if we look forward to a more solid, consistent base for feed aggregation, the voluntary aspect of Creative Commons could achieve some scale. In particular, I’m thinking about FeedMesh. The project seeks to create a single cloud of RSS feeds, out of which aggregators can pull content.

This isn’t a perfect system. There are too many loopholes and workarounds. But free-flowing information doesn’t mean old rules don’t apply. Ownership of work is absolute and should be up to the creator, regardless of channel. Providing a level of control will ultimately help protect RSS feeds’ growing value, by protecting those who truly contribute valuable content.

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