Copyright, Web 2.0, and RSS

Web 2.0 is one of my biggest professional interests after scholarly communication and its attendant issues. Even though my titles don’t have “digital” or “technology” or “emerging” in them, I see Web 2.0 as being very tightly linked to the copyright and scholarly publishing issues of the moment. Over time, I hope to use this blog to examine that connection more closely.

One of the primary tensions between copyright and Web 2.0 is that copyright is all about centralizing control, and 2.0 is all about decentralized sharing. When creators post their videos to YouTube or their photographs to Flickr, the goal is for the content to be linked, embedded, copied, emailed, and if it’s really good, spoofed, parodied, and remixed. Creators 2.0 may want credit, but they never expect to have anything resembling control, or at least the savvy ones don’t. The best thing that can happen to a creator on the web is to lose control, to have a maelstrom of copies shooting all over the world, to make a work that reproduces prolifically and of its own accord, like bunny rabbits or a virus.

The role of copyright in this landscape is confusing at best.

Blog feeds have come up recently as a major point of confusion. RSS enables people to aggregate lots of content from all over the web in one place; it takes the content that is produced for a single blog or website and puts it into a nice little package that can be exported and imported all over, including into other websites. As Ken Varnum puts it in a recent post on the subject, “feeds are purpose built to make content portable. If the author did not want others to copy the content, the author would not send it out in a format designed for its simple syndication.”

So what happens when someone takes an RSS feed and uses it in a way that the author doesn’t like? Can the author suddenly cry “Copyright infringement!” and have the whole thing shut down? Some bloggers appear to think so:

By providing the full content of my RSS feed, and therefore my content, on their site, they deprive me of those visitors who would otherwise come directly to my site. If I had advertising on my site, they could also be depriving me of revenue… In the same way that I can’t reprint a Harry Potter book and start selling it for my own gain, we need to realize that we can’t do that with RSS feeds or other Web content either. While Fair Use is OK, you can’t just start lifting and reusing entire bodies of work without permission. [Larry Borsato, PC World]

[W]hen a service cannot exist *without* republishing others content in its entirety, and directly profits from that republishing without the original consent of the author, there’s something that isn’t right. [Tony Hung, Deep Jive Interests]

Both of these comments were prompted by a new social feed reader called Shyfter. Shyfter aggregated feeds and posted them on the open web, instead of displaying them only to subscribers who had signed up to get certain feeds. I completely missed it at the time, but there was a whole blogosphere brouhaha about whether Shyfter’s tactics were unfair, infringing, or totally awesome. In the end, Shyfter bowed to pressure and stopped displaying whole feeds.

RSS hasn’t been around long enough to have a body of case law supporting one stance over another, and it will be very interesting to see what happens if a conflict like this ever makes it to court. I certainly understand how blog creators/copyright holders might want to be able to control who re-uses their work and in what contexts, especially bloggers who make money from ads. At the same time, I also want to smack my forehead and say, “Guys! It’s the internet! This is how it works! If you don’t want to lose control, don’t put your stuff online.”

But I suppose that’s not a terribly nuanced interpretation of copyright law, is it? If we hope to have a thriving content industry on the web, we’re probably going to have to find a way to enforce copyright online, right? Ideally a way that doesn’t involve the systematic intimidation and prosecution of music fans, but that’s another story.

Lessig on orphan works in the NYTimes

Someday I will stop blogging about orphan works, but today is not that day. Today, our man Lawrence Lessig, creator of Creative Commons and cyberlaw expert extraordinaire, has an op-ed in the New York Times about orphan works, and I’m helpless before the impulse to link it: Little Orphan Artworks.

Lessig comes down strongly against the current orphan works bills.

The solution before Congress, however, is both unfair and unwise. The bill would excuse copyright infringers from significant damages if they can prove that they made a “diligent effort” to find the copyright owner. A “diligent effort” is defined as one that is “reasonable and appropriate,” as determined by a set of “best practices” maintained by the government…

The proposed change is unfair because since 1978, the law has told creators that there was nothing they needed to do to protect their copyright. Many have relied on that promise. Likewise, the change is unfair to foreign copyright holders, who have little notice of arcane changes in Copyright Office procedures, and who will now find their copyrights vulnerable to willful infringement by Americans.

The change is also unwise, because for all this unfairness, it simply wouldn’t do much good. The uncertain standard of the bill doesn’t offer any efficient opportunity for libraries or archives to make older works available, because the cost of a “diligent effort” is not going to be cheap. The only beneficiaries would be the new class of “diligent effort” searchers who would be a drain on library budgets.

Lessig goes on to propose his own solution, one that he has proposed before: after a limited time of automatic copyright protection, creators must register their works in order to have the term of copyright continue. If you’re interested, you can go digging through the public comments on orphan works at the U.S. Copyright website to find an earlier incarnation of this suggestion.

Lessig concludes with an argument central to the success of Creative Commons, and one that should be a priority for any real attempt at copyright reform. (Emphasis added).

A hired expert shouldn’t be required for an orchestra to know if it can perform a work composed during World War II or for a small museum to know whether it can put a photograph from the New Deal on its Web site. In a digital age, knowing the law should be simple and cheap. Congress should be pushing for rules that encourage clarity, not more work for copyright experts.

I agree wholeheartedly, even though simple and clear copyright laws would put me out of a job.

Orphan Works resources

Public Knowledge has assembled a great set of resources about orphan works, including an overview, a timeline, and (my personal favorite) a list of myths and facts about orphan works legislation. They’re all worth a look.

Public Knowledge has been very involved in developing the orphan works bills and pushing them through Congress, so its perspective is understandably positive. The resources do a good job of countering the Illustrator’s Partnership arguments against orphan works legislation, but none of them address the criticisms coming from the user side, that these bills are too watered down to be useful. I would be interested to see someone from Public Knowledge reply to some of the concerns raised by Georgia Harper. The bills are moving forward but a lot of committee markup is still to come, and there may still be a chance for the final version to satisfy librarians and other user advocates.

Experimenting with Slideshare

Slideshare is one of those specialized Web 2.0 creations that I hear a lot about but have never really found a use for. Like Twitter, only more time intensive and with pictures. Since I teach a lot of workshops and periodically get requests to share my slides, it seems like the kind of thing I might use and appreciate, so I’m giving it a try.

I created a new page called Workshops and Presentations to link to some of my recent workshops and presentations in Slideshare. For now there’s just one, about Creative Commons. Another on copyright, author rights, and the NIH mandate is coming soon. I just taught a workshop on Open Access as well, but the OA landscape changes so frequently that it’s already out of date.

I have doubts about the usefulness of these Slideshare presentations, especially since there’s no audio and I tend to keep my slides light on text. I am putting up handouts as well, but the talks themselves are largely improvised, and there’s no script or set of notes to share. It will be interesting to see what if any feedback these get.

Kindling free e-books

My library’s IT department bought a Kindle for staff to experiment with, and I checked it out for the week. Using it has been an interesting experience.

When it first came out I read a lot of commentating and criticism about the Kindle as a publishing model, but I hadn’t really paid much attention to the specifics of its interface. So my first discovery was that it’s almost impossible to hold the thing without accidentally pushing buttons. And in fact a lot of the interface decisions made me wonder if Amazon had done any usability testing at all. Still, over the course of the week I did adjust to the Kindle’s quirks, and I found the act of reading on a Kindle to be unexpectedly pleasant.

Ultimately, the thing I found most annoying about using the Kindle had nothing to do with the Kindle itself. It was the format of the free e-books.

Some quick backstory: In order to prevent staff from charging John Grisham’s entire oeuvre to the University credit card, the library’s Kindle is not connected to an account, and you can’t use it to purchase anything. Instead, the lovely people in Desktop Support loaded it with a nice assortment of public domain and Creative Commons-licensed books in a range of genres (all from Many Books), so borrowers could experience using the Kindle for several different kinds of reading. I found that the cook book would be a pain to use, ditto the Complete Grammar of Esperanto (I love an IT department with a sense of humor). Most of what’s on the library’s Kindle is novels, and for novels the Kindle is great. I’ve been reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow’s first novel and an early experiment with CC-licensing.

And here’s where I got annoyed. The e-books on our Kindle mostly came from Project Gutenberg, a “volunteer effort to digitize, archive, and distribute cultural works,” according to the Project Gutenberg General FAQ. Every Project Gutenberg e-text includes a very long license header, and the license requires that this header remain intact in every future version of the e-text. Go take a look at the header. It’s really long. On the Kindle, there is no way to skip it. Using a moderately-sized font, you have to click through 15 pages of Gutenberg front matter before you get to the actual book you want to read (yes, I counted). It’s totally annoying.

What’s worse, the Down and Out e-text includes not only the Gutenberg license but also the Creative Commons license. And not just the brief, human readable summary of the license. It includes the entire legal deed, which adds another 15 clicks to the front end of the book. That’s a total of 30 clicks, just to get to the first page of the first chapter. That’s 29 clicks too many.

Here’s the thing: Project Gutenberg has made some major contributions to the body of public domain works available electronically. That’s awesome. The organization is also a big proponent of protecting the public domain and of ensuring free, open access to cultural works. Also awesome. But if your free open content is crappy to use, people who don’t know any better will think that all free open content is crappy to use, and that is not a good message for evangelists of free open content to be sending.

The growing popularity of mobile devices for reading books presents an enormous opportunity to groups like Project Gutenberg. There is a huge new audience of people who just want to spend their commutes reading a little Sherlock Holmes (or Jane Austen or Adam Smith or Shaw) on their Blackberries. These people may never have considered the value of the public domain before, or cared about the origins of their reading material, and they definitely don’t have a clue what ASCII is, but they might be willing to donate a little money if they develop nice feelings about the people who provide their free books. It works for public radio; Ira Glass just asked me for five dollars at the beginning of the free weekly podcast of This American Life. I love Ira, and I love my free weekly podcasts, so I sent him five dollars. Project Gutenberg could pull off something similar, but it would require a much friendlier header.

Instead of 15 clicks worth of front matter, Project Gutenberg should include a very brief intro in all of its e-texts, identifying itself as the producer of this free e-text, and encouraging readers to check out the PG website, donate some money, and read the full license deed at the end of the book. Then stick all the legalese at the back. Nobody reads it anyway, they just click (and click and click) through it.