The Top Ten Sources debate continues

If Berkman Center director John Palfrey wanted a debate on RSS and the future of Web-based media, which he hinted at almost two years ago, he has certainly gotten his wish. The debate over what his website, Top Ten Sources, is doing with RSS feeds continues — and while the debate has evolved somewhat, as Adam Green describes at Darwinianweb, there are still some strong feelings on either side.

Shelley over at Burningbird, for example, has a post about what Top Ten Sources is doing, and she is a lot less wishy-washy about it than Om Malik is. She says it is wrong, plain and simple — and her position isn’t tempered at all by the fact that John Palfrey runs Harvard’s Berkman Center on Internet and Society. She accuses him of trying to “wave the Web 2.0 wand” and change copyright law.

There is some interesting discussion in the comments about what is implied when you “publish” your blog through RSS, and whether Top 10 using it is just like Bloglines or anyone else. Dave Winer (who is a fellow at the Berkman Center) has a post in which he argues that Top Ten Sources is a good thing, but as lawyer Denise Howell of Bag & Baggage points out, the law is far from clear.

For what it’s worth, I think if you publish an RSS feed, then someone like Top Ten Sources should be free to run it on their site, provided they source it properly, link to it and don’t sell ads (which they don’t). I think it would be better if they didn’t do full feeds, but that’s debatable. I think Shelley’s position is overly harsh. Like coldcoffee says, if you don’t want people to run your stuff, then don’t publish a feed — let your friends come to the site, or subscribe via email.

John Palfrey has a post in which he seems open to continuing the discussion (as he should be), and he points to Susan Mernit’s post as making a valuable point — which is that bloggers might be a lot more open to such aggregation if they saw some benefit coming back to them. Lots of food for thought.

When does an aggregator become a splog?

Hey, who said blogging wasn’t cool — after all, how often do you get to use cool terms like “aggregator” and “splog?” Those terms have come up recently because Om Malik and a couple of other A-list bloggers have raised the issue of whether a new site called Top 10 Sources is doing something unsavoury or not. The site essentially pulls together the RSS feeds from the 10 blogs it feels are leaders in a particular field.

Om and Mike Rundle of BusinessLogs (a 9rules blog) aren’t saying Top 10 Sources is a “splog” or that the site is plagiarizing their content. But they have raised the question of whether aggregating their feeds — without asking first — is stepping over the bounds of civilized behaviour, particularly when some of the pages include the full post, not just an excerpt. Adam Green of Darwinianweb has also written about this thorny issue.

But what makes this even more interesting is that it turns out that Top 10 Sources is backed, in part, by John Palfrey — who happens to not only be a law professor, but the executive director of the prestigious Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, where Dave Winer (one of the inventors of RSS) is a fellow. In other words, not your run-of-the-mill aggregator, let alone a splogger.

Professor Palfrey, as it turns out (thanks to Adam Green for the links) has not only thought long and hard about this issue, he wrote about it on his blog as far back as 2003, when he wondered whether the increasing interest in RSS feeds would lead to just this kind of debate. As he notes, the attempt to exercise too much control over one’s feed can become — if taken to the extreme — the same kind of desire for control that the record industry has tried to exert by suing downloaders. However, he does admit that maybe full feeds isn’t the right way to go.

An interesting debate, that’s for sure. For the record, I think Top 10 Sources is doing something that makes sense, it isn’t selling ads all around everyone’s content, and therefore I would put it in pretty much the same camp as Google News. Let a thousand aggregators bloom.

Blog plagiarism — Steal this blog!

As usual, Mike over at TechDirt has what I think is a nice take on the blog plagiarism (or ‘splog’) problem that has afflicted some top bloggers, including Om Malik and TechCrunch. Mike’s response boils down to this: Ignore it (and it’s worth reading his reply to some of the comments his post got too).

Is wholesale blog-copying wrong? Obviously. Is Google making money from the AdSense ads that run on such sites? Yes. But I don’t think that means Google needs to police the problem, as Jeff Jarvis and some others believe. Do we really want Google to become a de facto website-content policeman? I would argue that we don’t.

Even Om isn’t sure what kind of response he wants to see. I have a hunch that Mike is right — anyone who matters will quickly realize that such sites aren’t adding any value, and therefore any AdSense revenue they gain will be fleeting at best. Maybe there’s a touch of Pollyanna in that, but I think the “reputation economy” — or whatever you want to call what we’re all doing here — should be more of a self-regulating mechanism.

As James Robertson notes, the issue of “fair use” is definitely a very grey area, since it covers feed aggregators as well as plogs. So what should be done? By all means, send the splogger a threatening note mentioning the DMCA (although be aware that you are using a badly-formed law that plenty of people dislike for plenty of very good reasons), but leave Google out of it.