Monday, January 17, 2005

Digital Copyright: RSS, Skweezer & SearchSpaniel

A few days ago I wrote about professor Lenz' decision to disable his RSS feeds due to what seemed like the equivalent of a DDoS attack stemming from Bloglines. Lenz' feeds are up again, as is news about Bloglines. A debate has been pending on RSS and copyright, in which one of the major talking points/concerns is that an aggregator (Bloglines) may reframe web content and impose its own (third-party) advertisements in or around it. The debate is quite interesting, and a nice oversight and links are given at A Copyfighter's Musings: 1 & 2.

A related debate from some weeks ago was initiated by Jason Calacanis' post RSS Abuse: What's fair use and what's abuse. (or Skweezer gets it wrong). The debate did not focus on an aggregator like Bloglines, but on a webservice called Skweezer. Calcanis wrote the following about Skweezer's practices:
It's one thing to take headlines. It's one thing to take an excerpt -like the good folks at Google,, Feedster or Technorati do- to help people navigate. It's a whole other thing to take your entire feed, wrap your own ads around it, and try to sell a service on top of the content!

That is exactly what just happened to us thanks to this website Skweezer. They have an interesting -but already available- idea: make webpages fit better on PDAs and phones. Great idea. We want readers to be able to read our content easily -no doubt.

However, their execution of this business idea is to take all of our websites and then:

1. Republish them on their website
2. Place their own advertisements on them
3. Sell a "professional" version of their software based on our content
4. Deny us the ability to track our page views and readers
Apart from that Skweezer technically uses a transformative proxy and not RSS, as the post suggest, the similarities with the RSS debate are obvious. As are the similarities with a practice that is getting more legal attention: the caching of webpages and other copyrighted content by search engines like Google. Is this caching copyright infringement? Probably. Does anyone care? Hardly. Care comes with commerce stepping into the picture. Skweezer may be a functional service, but stripping ads and implementing their own raises legal questions. Part of the legality of the practice depends on the copyright/licensing scheme that covers the original content. A creative commons license prohibiting non-commercial use may restrict the implementation of advertisements in the original content.

Of course the practice of ripping and just plain copying of content is rampant on the net, and the line of legality is a shady one. What to think of SearchSpaniel, the meta search engine that takes the content of Wikipedia ad verbatim, even takes some of the frame work, strips away the Wikipedia community links and puts Google ads around it. The GNU Free Documentation License seems to allow this practice, and SearchSpaniel, to its small credit, does put a disclaiming "thank you note" at the bottom of "its" Wikipedia pages:
This article was derived fully or in part from an article on - the free encyclopedia. We at SearchSpaniel would like to thank all the members of the Wikipedia community who wrote and edited the free encyclopedia. By allowing us to reprint their high quality content, the many Wikipedians have provided a great service to our SearchSpaniel readers. Thank you! This article is distributed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
Another question that arises from the copy-and-add-ad practice is to what extent this practice is transparent for users of web content. Skweezer customers may be aware that content is reformatted and that advertisements are added/changed. But what if this kind of procedural manipulation lets them believe that the ads and framing is endorsed by the original provider of the content? And do the moral rights of the author -very much a notion of European copyright- come into play if his content is (re)presented in a fashion that touches on the integrity of his work? Just some of the questions in a debate that is likely to spin on faster and faster for the coming years.
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Scrivener's Error makes a comparison with file-sharing


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