Last month, Martin Schwimmer asked Bloglines to remove The Trademark Blog's feed from the service, under the theory that Bloglines' terms of service, which reserve the option to frame feeds with ads and to sell its subscriber lists, constitutes an unauthorized commercial use of the feed.
Schwimmer is concerned that his blog will be used for free by Bloglines as space to sell ads to other trademark law firms: "To argue that the creation of a RSS feed impliedly allows this type of uncontrolled commercial re-use is to argue that RSS strips all content of effective copyright protection. I have not seen a compelling legal or policy argument as to why all RSS content should be public domain in this way. "
Critics of Schwimmer's argument label him an "anal-retentive pinhead" who has made "a myopic mistake" for publishing a full-text feed for only non-commercial uses. Because Bloglines works like a web-based replacement for a desktop client, with no ads and individual control over subscribing to feeds, its supporters contend that its use of feeds is not commercial.
Critics of Bloglines note that Bloglines makes feeds publicly accessible to the web at large, not just subscribers to the feed on its service. Dennis Kennedy wonders about the commercial implications of this behavior, "With my content on their site, they are able to surround my content with their own ads and make it part of other revenue-producing activities. At the same time, they are not showing any ads or sponsor logos I have on my blog. Presumably, the Bloglines.com twin of my blog diminishes the traffic to my blog. It's all very analogous to the early controversies over the framing of web pages, even though the technologies are different."
What are the norms for using, repurposing and republishing syndicated feeds?
Even the critics of the Schwimmer/Kennedy position would not argue that publishing a feed grants an unlimited license to use the content in the feed.
Today, I came across Sieblogs, a site which aggregates feeds and repurposes their content while stripping the identifying information about the source of the content. The Legal blog includes posts taken from Larry Lessig, Dennis Kennedy, Ed Felten, and Sabrini Pacifici. The Real Estate blog features a large number of posts taken from Curbed, while the Music blog found posts from Largehearted Boy.
Even the design is a nearly perfect clone of the Weblogs, Inc. layout.
Clearly, Sieblogs has gone beyond accepted norms of RSS use. Does publishing an RSS feed create an implied license for this kind of use, or does it require an explicit license? Would this use be OK if it is non-commercial despite lacking source attribution?
If Sieblogs is an impermissible service, what features distinguish an infringing web service from one that plays nicely in the syndication ecosystem?
- Commitment to not reselling subscriber lists
- Individual user control over subscription lists
- Limit access to feed content to registered users
- Amount of content (full text vs. summaries)
See also these two articles which look at some of these issues from different perspectives:
Information Week: The Weblog Question (corporate issues in blogging, including syndication and ownership)
Derek Slater: RSS, Blogging and Copyright Questions (abstracting these issues into copyright at large.)