Who owns 'public' content?

RSS feed ownership brought into question.

Every day people put virtual truckloads of information into the public domain. Books are published. Newspapers printed. A lot of that ends up on the Internet as well, along with the words of bloggers and other online denizens. All of these people make content public so that others can hopefully benefit from it.

Once it is out in the public domain, who owns it? Well, the author of course, or in some cases, their employers. That makes sense when we're talking about a web Wage. But sometimes, in order to make it easier for people to find and read the information, it is delivered as an RSS feed. RSS breaks down the information into article-sized chunks and streams it out so that news-reading tools can grab it and display it for users.

One of the most common examples of RSS feeds is that provided by Google's Blogger publishing platform. Blogger's Terms of Service states this:

"You or a third party licensor, as appropriate, retain all patent, trademark and copyright to any Content you submit, post or display on or through Google services and you are responsible for protecting those rights, as appropriate."

They do not distinguish between what appears on the Web page, and what appears in an RSS feed. And neither should we. If I write something that is published as a book, then excerpted for Reader's Digest, then included in an anthology, are my rights lessened in any way? No. My rights are independent of the media.

What if someone decided to take your RSS feed and republish it on their site? A company named Shyftr did that a couple of weeks ago, creating a fury of comments from bloggers around the internet. Louis Gray likes the fact that there are more places for conversations to take place. Tony Hung doesn't like people stealing his RSS feed. And Robert Scoble says that bloggers no longer have control of their content.

I'm a blogger, and I publish my content under a Creative Commons license that allows others to share and adapt it for non-commercial purposes, as long as they attribute the content to me. If Shyftr is a commercial entity as they seem to be, then they have apparently violated both the spirit and the letter of that agreement.

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.

To their credit, the folks at Shyftr were quick to respond to the discussion and change the way they worked to be more amenable to the content authors. That may not always be the case with other companies.

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 has been a software developer, marketer, consultant, public speaker, and entrepreneur, among other things. For more of his unpredictable, yet often entertaining thoughts you can read his blog at larryborsato.com.

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