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.