RSS Feeds & Copyright

Copyright and fair use are poorly understood in the population at large (just ask high school teachers or college professors how much time they spend vetting submitted papers for flagrant — let alone subtle — plagiarism). However, syndication technologies such as RSS and Atom make it so easy to repurpose works that what’s proper — morally or legally — is often overlooked. After all, 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.
The Australian magazine PC World runs an interesting article by Larry Borsato: “Who owns ‘public’ content? RSS feed ownership brought into question.” In the article, Borsato recounts a recent incident in which a commercial entity reproduced, in toto, his blog posts via RSS on its web site. While Borsato has a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution license, he felt the commercial entity had violated it; they were, after all, a commercial entity. While the question was resolved amicably, it highlights, once again, the difference between how copyright is frequently viewed in the syndicated environment from how it is often seen in the print world. Borsato concludes:

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.

Like many other facets of life in the Internet age, technological possibility is outstripping common practice — and often outstripping common sense. Some of this particular misconception, about what can legitimately be done with online content, can be cleared up through experience and training. Some of it will inevitably be resolved through better technological solutions. But when it comes down to it, we as bloggers must take greater responsibility for tracking how our content is used.

4 thoughts on “RSS Feeds & Copyright”

  1. This is such an interesting subject. At one end of the spectrum are what would appear to be pretty evident abuses of what anyone would consider fair, such as the case of Moreover and AP (from Reuters:, where Moreover simply scraped AP content, then onsold it to others.
    At the other end are the curious and slightly nonsensical restrictions that newspapers will (at least apparently) place on their RSS feeds. Even canny organizations such as the WSJ continue to keep these restrictions in place. The only major newspaper that really “gets” it seems to be the NY Times, which encourages wider distribution of its RSS.
    Of course, one suspects that most newspapers would not enforce these restrictions against individuals and non-aggregator businesses, and that they are there only as a protection against the less well-judged actions of aggregators such as Moreover.
    The reason why all this is so interesting to me is that I’ve developed an RSS tool (Xenos) that enables users to “re-mix” RSS feeds into their own feeds, then redistribute it as RSS, intranet pages or html email newsletters. It’s really been designed as a free information source alternative to expensive services from the likes of LexisNexis and Factiva.

  2. Scott,
    Your application’s function describes the conundrum of RSS: RSS creators want their content available, but (in may cases) don’t want to lose complete control. Mixing RSS feeds is just what they’re for — but at the same time, RSS4Lib’s feed has shown up on various spam blogs verbatim.

  3. AP, Bloggers, and Fair Use

    The Associated Press has stepped back from its original position on copyright and the blogosphere and will be developing a (hopefully) more nuanced policy. According to an article in the June 16 issue of The New York Times, “The Associated…

  4. Facebook Notes Redirects Your Feeds

    I jumped on the Facebook bandwagon as it was pulling out of town and created a Facebook page for RSS4Lib (become a fan!). In the process, as I was adding the RSS feed for this blog using the Notes tool,…

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