Weekends are typically slow times for copyright news. With the courts closed and most Web hosts gone for 48 hours, very little usually happens.
However, this weekend was a definite exception. It saw a veritable blogstorm over the RSS aggregation service Shyftr and its republishing of RSS content. Some bloggers, such as Robert Scoble and Louis Gray came down in favor of the service while others, including Tony Hung and Raoul Pop were firmly against it.
In the end, Shyftr backed down and changed its policy but not before drawing a vast amount of unwanted attention and dozens of angry blog posts.
However, now that things have died down some, we can take a look back at what happened and what it may mean for both bloggers and for other companies that may want to enter a similar market.
Shyftr, which stands for Share Your Feeds Together, describes itself as a mashup between RSS reading and social networking. It’s goal, according to its site is to enable users to “find feeds by searching content brought directly to you through the Shyftr network, as well as feeds that other users follow by viewing their feed list.”
But while the idea of social RSS reading is also a part of other sites, such as Streamy, where Shyftr ran afoul of many blogger’s sense of fair play was in its republishing of the full RSS feed and allowing its users to comment on the feed, away from the original site.
The act of scraping and republishing an RSS feed is an act commonly associated with spam blogs and the fact that Shyftr, a seemingly legitimate RSS reader, was engaging in the behavior raised the ire of many bloggers, even pushing Raoul Pop to threaten sending DMCA notices to them if they did not remove his content.
In the end, Shyftr relented, saying that “… we have decided to revise the format around our discussions. We will only display the title, author, and date of an item where discussions occur outside of the reader. We deeply respect content publishers, and it is not our intention to cause unease.”
This, in turn, seemed to appease many of the critics of the site, including Mathew Ingram, and seemed to put the issue largely at rest.
Though the story had many threads running through it, one of the issues that came up repeatedly was the discussion as to whether or not publishing an RSS feed, in particular a full one, offers an implied license for others to republish the feed on their site.
Many commenters, especially to Tony’s original post, felt that it did and that meant Shyftr was within its rights to republish the full content. Others, however, chose to disagree.
One of those who disagreed was copyright attorney Evan D. Brown who, in his post on the topic, cited both a 1990 case that dealt with the kinds of issues an implied license was designed for and and an earlier post by blogger Eric Berlin.
Combined with opinions from other attorneys, it seems that there is something of a consensus that, at the very least, there is little reason to assume that there is such an implied license. However, even if there were, it would be trumped by an actual license, meaning that a blogger would still have the right to refuse their feed being used in such a manner, very similar to how Google can not index sites that decline it.
However, until we see a court ruling on the matter of implied license with RSS feeds, these types of issues are going to consistently re-emerge and are only going to grow more frequent.
The Bigger Picture
However, the larger thread running the discussion was one about how blogs were meant to be consumed. Many, such as Scoble, favored a completely de-centralized view where the content appears on as many places as possible while others want to continue to serve the interests of the reader, while still maintaining some degree of control.
But while there was a great deal of discussion and debate about the republishing of RSS feeds, one thing that there was agreement on was that blogs were not just a Web page, that they were intended to be consumed, in many cases, off of the site.
In fact, in many cases the debate was as heated as it was because bloggers wanted to continue to offer a full feed to their readers without seeing the work republished by Shyftr or sites like it.
It seems that most bloggers agree that blog reading is a decentralized activity, one that takes place in a variety of RSS readers. However, the debate lies in whether or not other sites should be able to republish the full content in a public location, rather than just to active subscribers.
That debate is far from settled and it doesn’t appear that it will be any time soon.
What We Need
However, even if the blogging community does manage to reach a consensus, there will always be dissenters one way or another. This is a matter of personal choice for the blogger and that choice should be respected.
The problem is that companies such as Shyftr have no way of predicting which bloggers are going to allow republication and which are not. They would have to get permission directly from every blogger that they wanted to republish.
But while obtaining permission and licensing is certainly something familiar to those that work in the copyright field, in the age of Creative Commons, meta tags and robots.txt, this seems archaic.
More than a consensus, we need a way for bloggers and other RSS publishers to voice their preferences about republication with the RSS feed itself. Companies should not have to knock on every door to obtain permission, imagine if search engines had to do so, and bloggers who are not comfortable with sites like Shyftr should not have to worry about their content being misused.
Such a system would also help separate the legitimate RSS republishers from the spam bloggers, the same was robots.txt separates the legitimate spiders from the questionable ones, and encourage responsible RSS use.
Best of all, it would speed up the dialog about RSS republishing by making everyone’s opinion known, and encouraging people to talk about why they made the choices they did. This would be far more efficient than waiting for a site like Shyftr to become the center of attention and start a heated debate.
Personally, I side with those that felt Shyftr crossed a line. By republishing the full RSS feed and making it available to non-subscribers, who aren’t counted as readers in any tracking program, and to the search engines, they did a great disservice to the content creators they used. They were right to change their policies and I am glad they were so quick to listen.
However, I also agree with Shyftr that the discussions we’ve had over the past few days have been “healthy”. Though I was in the middle of a host transfer for most of the weekend and unable to participate much until Sunday, the discussions and dialogs have been great and have shown that, despite not selling the work, bloggers still take their content very seriously and take a great deal of interest in how it is used.
It is also clear that bloggers have many reasons, other than republishing, to offer a full RSS feed. The idea of simply offering a shortened feed is not acceptable to many as it is a disservice to their regular readers. Clearly, a full feed is not intended to be a blanket blessing to republish at will, at least to a large percentage of bloggers, and that makes it clear that there is a need for some other indicator.
In the end, we only have two choices in this matter. One is we can let the courts decide how RSS feeds are intended to be used, or we can let technology help give bloggers an individual choice.
Clearly the time has come to re-evaluate licensing and RSS feeds. If anything good is to come out of the Shyftr saga, let us hope that it is a practical way for bloggers to have their wishes expressed and for the rest of us to avoid these kinds of issues in the future.