The Shyftr Saga

Filed as Features on April 14, 2008 8:56 am

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’s Story

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.

Legal Issues

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.

Conclusions

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.

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  1. By Raoul posted on April 14, 2008 at 9:30 am
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    Jonathan, Shyftr’s policy change over the weekend did little to appease me. It was just smoke and mirrors. As you can see if you look at my feed as displayed on Shyftr’s site, they’re still showing the full content of my feed articles, which I find entirely unacceptable.

    They’ve reserved the right to display the full content of feed items where there are no comments on the original site. That’s ridiculous and it’s still an infringement of my copyright as far as I’m concerned.

    Since they have not removed my feed from their site, and they haven’t used excerpts to display feed items, I still intend to go through with my DMCA take-down notice.

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  2. By Raoul posted on April 14, 2008 at 9:32 am
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    A quick correction. It seems their new rule is to display the shortened version of a feed item only if there is discussion on it at Shyftr, not at the original site. My own post on Shyftr, stolen from my feed, is still displayed in full at Shyftr despite having gathered plenty of comments on my own site.

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  3. By Mark Evans posted on April 14, 2008 at 10:31 am
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    Jonathan,

    Thanks for the legal insight. My sense is that Shyftr could be the straw that broke the camel’s back in the sense that many bloggers have been fine with RSS because it has been seen as a way to expand their brands and grow distribution. But now that the conversation around their content is happening in other places, some bloggers may start to question a decentralized content ecosystem. Shyftry just opened a can of worms in a big way.

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  4. By Ram posted on April 14, 2008 at 1:13 pm
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    Thanks Jonathon for the great post. The latest move from them is not going to satisfy many bloggers. Let us see how this evolves over time

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  5. By Michael posted on April 14, 2008 at 1:48 pm
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    I think if Shyftr from the get go had republished full feeds, made republished feeds off limits to search engines, and not enabled commenting, the outcry would not have been as great. Any kind of widespread republishing that is indexed by search engines and moves discussion away from bloggers’ blogs is going to get a thrashing from large percentages of the blogosphere.

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  6. By Lorelle VanFossen posted on April 14, 2008 at 9:24 pm
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    I echo the thanks, Jonathan. The issue for me is not just controlling where my content goes, but controlling who makes money from my content, especially content that comes from my WordPress.com blog, from which I cannot make direct income. The abusers of my content can.

    Such usage breaks the “Ask First” manners of the web, using my hard work for income generation without my permission, nor reward for such allowance. If there is money to be made by blogging, I want a piece of the pie they are making with my content.

    Knowing when to draw the line in the feed department is getting harder and harder to define. Hopefully, this discussion will help define that line and protect our content while allowing non-commercial, private use without pain and suffering – on both sides of the blog fence.

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  7. By Jonathan Bailey posted on April 14, 2008 at 10:56 pm
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    Raoul: If what you say is true, and it appears to be, then you are right to not be appeased. It should not matter how many comments are displayed on a post, the full feed should not be used. I agree completely.

    That is not listening to the complaints of bloggers and I will be following up on that…

    Mark: I agree. It is strange to me considering that Shyftr, though problematic, is not the worst site I’ve seen of its kind. However, it really did open the can so to speak and I think the conversation element was the catalyst.

    Ram: It seems the situation continues to evolve. I’m going to follow it and probably post more about it on my site later this week.

    Michael: I’m really not sure if there is any “safe” way to republish full feeds but I do agree that their actions around it only made the situation worse. I always put the emphasis on symbiosis.

    Digg and Reddit are actually great models for how to build sites and reputations using other people’s content, without ripping them off. I think the system is pretty solid in those cases.

    Lorelle: Agreed on all fronts. Hopefully we can find ways to speed up the asking process so that it is more practical, but it is an important element both legally and ethically.

    Hopefully, this dialog can help us all move forward and come to some kind of consensus and standard for how these issues should be handled.

    A guy can dream…

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  8. By Lorelle VanFossen posted on April 15, 2008 at 12:48 am
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    @Jonathan Bailey:

    Good example with Digg and Reddit. These are places where peer-to-peer social sharing pays off, in their own way, with conversations about the content, but little or no copyright abuse – though I have actually found copies of my content on splog sites who submitted my stolen content to Digg as if it was their own…*SIGH*

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