Copyright, RSS, and Common Sense

Of the many interesting cans of worms that content syndication tools — RSS feeds in particular — open, one of the most significant is copyright. The issue becomes particularly interesting when the RSS feed is the same as the site — that is, when the blog’s author chooses to republish the entire content of an article via RSS.
I think many people assume that, by making content available through RSS or other syndication tools, the content’s author has implicitly permitted that content to be used by others. Common practice shows this to be a frequent interpretation. I’m sure many of my fellow bloggers have been as annoyed as I am when I discover that RSS4Lib’s content is being reproduced, in its entirety, on another web site whose sole purpose appears to be selling advertisements.
Common practice notwithstanding, reproducing blog content wholesale is wrong, barring a license explicitly granted in the feed or on the originating web site. RSS feeds are protected by copyright just as much as any other work.
There are several mechanisms, of course, for stating your licensing terms. While copyright law (in the United States, at least) does not require an explicit statement of copyright for the item to be protected, it’s common sense to do so. You can put a statement on your blog — and it’s probably wise to do so on each post or page, using your weblog software’s templates. It’s also possible, and advisable, to put copyright statements in your feeds:

  • The RSS 2.0 specification includes a copyright statement for the entire feed, in the channel’s <copyright> field, but not for a particular entry.
  • The Atom draft specification has a <rights> field for both the feed and individual entries.

In practical terms, of course, whatever the rights are and however they are declared, they’re hard to enforce.
I suspect many of us are happy to have our content included in services like Google Reader, Bloglines, and the like — after all, we’re writing to be read. Short or long excerpts from our posts being used in the context of another blogger’s post are also fine with most of us — that’s how discussion happens. At the other end of the scale, I would bet that most of us are less sanguine about our content being reproduced, in whole, for financial gain, by someone else.
Somewhere in the middle is a potential Google project — described at TechCrunch in a post titled Google May Add Comment Feature On Shared Reader Feeds — in which users could comment on blog posts within the context of Google Reader. Such a project, if implemented, would move the conversations and discussions about our blog posts from our blogs into “Googlespace,” which all too often is akin to a black hole: things go in, but don’t come out. I’m not knowledgeable enough about copyright to weight in on the legality of appropriating bloggers’ content, reproducing it, and fostering interaction around it without explicit permission, but to me, it’s questionable. If this project comes to fruition, it could seriously infringe on the way we as bloggers — librarian or otherwise — interact with our users and our patrons.

One thought on “Copyright, RSS, and Common Sense”

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