Is Robert Scoble stealing or marketing?

by Mathew on November 5, 2006 · 15 comments

To me, one of the most important developments of the past few years from a Web 2.0 perspective was RSS, the “really simple syndication” format that allowed any blogger and in fact any website period to become their own newswire, just like Associated Press or Canada News Wire. Sure, it’s plumbing, but it’s important plumbing. Which is why it’s important that we decide what people are allowed to do with RSS feeds and what they’re not.

For example, taking all of someone’s feed and putting it on a website and then selling ads around it is clearly wrong, it seems to me. This is called “scraping,” and it is flat-out stealing. Then there’s taking someone’s full feed and putting it on a site but not selling ads around it, and pointing people to the originating blog, which is kind of what Top Ten Sources got in trouble for awhile back (more on that here). That’s in kind of a grey area.

Then there’s what Robert Scoble is doing, which is using the “share” feature in Google’s Reader (which I also use) to highlight certain items in the feeds that he reads. Google gives you what amounts to an instant blog, or at least a distinct URL, where all your shared items show up (mine is here) and they are the full items from anyone who has a full-text feed.

theft

That got someone named Andy Beard — whose website says he is involved in keyword research and affiliate marketing — kind of upset, because he said RSS is meant to be private and therefore Scoble was helping to ruin RSS. This makes no sense whatsover, of course, since RSS is by its nature a syndication mechanism. But in the comments on Scoble’s post, it became clear that others, including Duncan Riley of b5 media, think what he is doing is stealing.

To Scoble, however (and to me as well), it seems more like helping — since a link to a post in Scoble’s shared items is almost certain to drive people to the blog in question. Is that not a good thing? And there are no ads in the reader blog, so he can’t be accused of making money from it. And it isn’t a full feed, although it is full-text posts.

As Techdirt has written before, this seems like someone complaining because someone else made their content more valuable (be sure to check the back and forth between Mike Masnick of Techdirt and Jason Calacanis of Netscape in the comments on the Techdirt post). And Fred Von Lohmann of the EFF and others have pointed out that publishing an RSS feed implies a license to reuse that content.

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  • http://fitrans.blogspot.com Ryan Coleman

    “To Scoble, however (and to me as well), it seems more like helping”

    I have to agree – I realized recently (belatedly) that I had, in a sense, become a “human aggregator” for several friends and colleagues. So rather than continually emailing people links and what not they all got one email the other day that basically said “Here’s my shared items – anything interesting will be there”

    I can see if someone was sharing every post from another person’s blog that might be a bit much but the odd article here and there is well within the realm of “fair use” etc.

  • Mathew Ingram

    I agree, Ryan. Thanks for the comment.

  • http://engtech.wordpress.com engtech

    “(mine is here)” — missing link

    I was very tempted to go on a nastyrant when I read this one at Scobles blog. If you are putting out an RSS feed with no ads, and someone shares it, then IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCE WHO THE SOURCE WAS. The only way this could be an issue is:

    - if they’re taking a feed with embedded ads and removing the ads then sharing
    - adding ads to a feed

    Neither is the case. (I’ve yet to see Google embedding adwords in Google Reader shared feeds)

    The only reason I can see for Andy Beard’s initial post is either
    a) it’s an attempt to link-bait/generate contraversy for Feed Magic (Read this an tell me that doesn’t seem the most likely case: http://andybeard.eu/Recommends/Feed_Magic.html)
    b) He’s pissed he spend money on FeedMagic that is inherently flawed.

    With FeedMagic every subscriber gets a unique RSS feed — but that’s just an RSS feed with a unique address. All someone has to do is mark that feed as public in their Bloglines/Google Reader and it is accessible. This is what the hoopla about Bloglines exposing Gmail accounts was about — people were using Bloglines for their Gmail as RSS but not realizing that they had it publically shared so anyone could read it.

    The real issue in this story is that whoever is selling FeedMagic (that Andy Beard recommends) is misdirecting their potential customers to the public nature of RSS feeds.

    “Now you can charge your subscribers for your RSS feeds on a recurring basis!” — FeedMagic promo on Andy Beard’s site

    Funny, I didn’t think the protocol allowed for that.

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks, Engtech — forgot to add the link to my Reader shared page. And I hadn’t noticed the connection between Andy Beard and Feed Magic. Thanks for the comment.

  • http://andybeard.eu Andy Beard

    I have a much longer reply coming, but did you notice the very clear full disclosure in the post

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks for pointing that out, Andy. It’s true that you did mention that you have recommended Feed Magic and that you have an affiliate marketing relationship with them.

  • http://engtech.wordpress.com engtech

    Andy and I are discussing this via email at the moment, but one of the things I was looking at is this post on RSS Authentication and a paid subscriber only feed (Daring Fireball)

    [post is here]

    It looks like if RSS Authentication is used then that blocks out Bloglines/Google Reader which ensures that the content isn\’t shared… so there\’s no issue here so long as a proper copyright protection mechanism is used?

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks, Engtech — it sounds like RSS Authentication might be the way to go for some publishers who want to restrict who their content goes to, although it’s not going to help much if the big feed readers don’t support it.

  • Andy Beard

    First off, I am not a lawyer, and this post is purely for entertainment value (very similar to the statement in the ToC from The Globe and Mail)

    I am going to try hard not to duplicate too much content I have posted elsewhere, as that doesn\’t do justice to your readership.

    There are 3 main issues.

    1. A publishers right to control how their content is distributed
    2. Should a publisher have access to readership statistics
    3. The danger of sharing

    On this blog you have a very clear Creative Commons license, stating exactly what you are allowed to do with your content. Many blogs, including Roberts just have a Copyright notice. You are arguing that there is some kind of implied license and the people you are quoting clearly state that this has yet to be challenged.

    My knowledge of copyright law, especially US copyright law (though copyright is international), is in no way complete, but this is my understanding. Copyright isn\’t a grey issue. Until laws are challenged in court, and accepted universally (worldwide), the rules don\’t change. They are black and white. DMCA is pretty much set in stone

    The extreme danger of sharing RSS content is whether you can afford to defend yourself. Shared RSS, if this becomes universally accepted becomes a viral frenzy of sharing, and a lawyers wet dream. Every person who shares content becomes infected by that content, liable just as much as the person who initially started to spread it.

    My belief is that you can only argue an implied license, if you also provide an interface such that the original author of a feed item, has a way to flag that content \”not to be shared\” There is still a danger in spreading the feed, because the original author of the feed might himself have used content he didn\’t own.

    Your primary arguement, and that of Robert Scoble is that RSS is meant for sharing. I would like to clearly state that I am not looking to totally prevent sharing of RSS content, but to give the original author of content a way to flag their feeds \”noshare\”, in addition to such things as a copyright statement (which everyone should clearly use – Robert doesn\’t on his feeds oh, and nor do you)

    There is already plenty of RSS content which isn\’t intended to be shared. Here are some examples (this bit is duplicated from my own comments)

    \”Here is a good source of further reading I read 18 months ago (http://toprank.blogspot.com/2005/04/free-rss-marketing-report.html) after hearing about it on Lee Odden\’s blog (http://toprank.blogspot.com) — The Business Case for RSS (http://www.marketingstudies.net/rssbusinesscase)

    Some examples from the report for uses of RSS (at that time 18 months ago). These are personal private uses that shouldn\’t be shared.

    Some affiliate managers already communicate with their affiliates using RSS.

    This is often financial information. It is certainly not something that should end up in a shared feed.

    One company uses RSS as a consulting billing awareness tool. The consultants create activity reports and the RSS feeds from the activity channels carry the billable information to the accounting staff for invoice preparation.

    Highly confidential information

    Create RSS autoresponders with scheduled messages, to keep in constant marketing contact with your prospects and slowly get them to the point of purchase.

    The sales process can involve certain special offers specific to the previous actions of the subscriber. Having the sales process shared subverts the sales process.

    Why should potential new customer be able to find out that existing customers are getting a bigger discount, or a better upsell offer?

    Provide limited-access content to your customers, employees, team members and even investors, without fearing other unwanted eyes. Use RSS for internal communications, teamworking and other needs.

    Have you seen (http://taskspro.com/features) Alex King\’s Task Pro?

    RSS feeds of your tasks

    Subscribe to the RSS feed for your tasks or your group\’s tasks and keep up with what your group members are working on.

    Sounds like confidential information that shouldn\’t be shared to me.

    How about some more Web 2.0 heros providing confidential information by RSS?

    How about a (http://everything.basecamphq.com/archives/000131.php) warning from 37 Signals posted over 2 years ago

    Your own article is also very relevant (http://www.mathewingram.com/work/2006/11/05/what-happens-to-attribution-in-social-media/) What happens to attribution in social media?

    One financial aspect you forgot to mention that is very relevant in this case is the ability to track circulation, readership etc. Not just for autoresponders as I pointed out in my own article. It is equally true for all content owners.

    Unfortunately Google is collecting data, and despite Google Reader being a relatively mature product (though still in beta), Google are hanging onto that data. Google is the exception in this. Every other Feed Reader gives this information. Robert chose not to question Google on this when he had the opportunity.

    @ Engtech

    You are right that FeedMagic by default isn\’t as secure as full RSS Authentication, but it is a personal feed, and you can also add RSS Authentication to it (it is only a password protected directory structure after all) Then it becomes just as secure as that offered by companies like 37Signals. There is a real advantage from a marketers perspective to know exactly which subscriber opened and read which message, and maybe clicked through to the offered content.

    Advertising companies do the same.

    For example (http://www.techcrunch.com/2006/11/05/fuckedcompanys-adbrite-spawn-goes-20/) this post on TechCrunch today.

    I chose a product as just one example, but there was full disclosure, and I have got the script for that product sitting on my harddisk effectively unused, because of all the associated problems with sharing.

    Why did I choose that product rather than 37 Signals? Yes I am an affiliate of the product (did you notice the full disclosure?), I actually know the guy, believe in the technology, know he hasn\’t had the success with it that might be deserved, and thus sending him traffic was more appropriate than sending it to 37 Signals.

    An experienced programmer responding to my original post in the comments confirmed my own opinion, that it would be a simple programming task to implement a system that prevents a feed item being shared if it is against the wishes of the content owner. Obviously it would also take a little cooperation between the major aggregator companies, but adding \”noshare\” to feeds (at the option of the publishers) would in my opinion be more useful than when they added \”nofollow\” to blogs almost 2 years ago.

    I have approached a specialist in internet law for some additional feedback on the legal ramifications of sharing copyright information. I am awaiting a response.
    IANAL but my interpretation is that it would be very similar to a case earlier this year when some website content (some legal documents) was spread among 100s of websites. I would be very careful \”sharing\” a feed that belonged to a lawyer

    I have also approached 2 prominent content owners for their input. Both display copyright on their website, and do not provide copyright terms within their full content feed. Both will have very good legal representation, and a clear policy in this issue. Hopefully I will be able to publish their views.

  • http://engtech.wordpress.com engtech

    Matt – you might want to edit that last comment to show that it’s from Andy

    I’m impressed with the dialog Andy is generating on this subject.

    I feel like a real idiot for my first comment. :)

    Andy, I think contacting the Daring Fireball guys for their POV might be another good source for your argument. They’ve been effectively selling RSS subscription for a while.

    http://daringfireball.net/

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks, Engtech — I was just in the process of editing Andy’s comment (which came via email) as you were reading it, so now it says it’s from him.

    And I would agree that Andy has a point — there are no doubt plenty of occasions when a person or a business doesn’t want information in their feed to become public, and maybe RSS Authentication is the way to go.

    At the same time, however, I would disagree with Andy and argue that RSS the way it is now definitely carries an implied license (unless you include terms inside your feed), and that if you don’t want customers or whoever to find things out from your feed then maybe you shouldn’t be using RSS.

  • http://andybeard.eu Andy Beard

    Thanks for posting the email Mathew, I don’t know why your comment system didn’t like it (maybe too long)

    Again this post is for entertainment purposes only, I am not a lawyer.

    RSS Authentication works well for the picking up of feeds, but once in your RSS Reader has no effect.

    What I would like to see is not just clear copyright statements (feedburner can do that for you Mathew btw)

    The “noshare” flag I am suggesting which would be so simple to implement would prevent the sharing within the reader itself.

    The implied nature is undecided. I am sure there are legal specialists who would argue the other way.

    Robert in his comments was claiming that he has a right to share, even if the copyright notice didn’t allow for it.

    He thinks it is the copyright owners reponsibility to contact him to remove it. IANAL but my understanding is that a copyright owner is under no obligation to issue a C & D.
    They can just demand compensation.

    And then of course the poor people who followed Roberts example and shared his feed with their friends, who again shared it etc etc. the viral effect. They could all be liable as well.

    It probably would never end up in court. Most people sharing this content couldn’t afford to defend themselves.

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