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Online Content Aggregators: The Past, The Present, The Future

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I was planning to hold off this post until after launch of the upcoming The Medical Blog Network (TMBN) release, but a complaint from Barbados Butterfly compeled me to do this preview sooner.

At issue is what is and is not appropriate in blog syndication, in particular re-publishing blog feeds in an aggregator.

I can hear a lynch mob calling for my head on copyright grounds. But let us calm down for a second and enumerate the relevant issues that have been brought up so far. I want to ask the readers not to rush to judgement and to hold off conclusions till the end of the post.

Copyright considerations are valid and important. The challenge is that the specific applications of the law are not yet well established when it comes to RSS and blogs. Real innovation usually tends to push into the legal gray areas. Controversies are inevitable, but what is really important is being able to resolve them in good faith.

So let me enumerate these grey area issues related to blog aggregation, each with their unique considerations:

  • Motivation: Content creators need ways to promote their blogs. General audience needs ways to navigate them. So the role of aggregators is to help the audience find the content they like.
  • Inclusion: Who is to say a piece of content should be included? Inclusion by opt-in is an obvious one. But what if a site publishes RSS feed, encourages syndication but does not post a clear feed use policy? Is it not reasonable for an aggregator to interpret feed publication as invite to pick it up? Why or why not?
  • RSS & Excerpts: Who decides how much of the content is appropriate to be reproduced by the aggregator? There is a distinction to be made between direct scraping the web site's HTML (questionable) and picking up RSS feed in exact form as published for syndication. Does RSS inclusion pass for consent?
  • Implementation: Who should be responsible for the technical tweaks to get the right excerpts generated and formatted? Many bloggers are not hosting their own software. If a hosting service publishes a full feed without blogger's knowledge, why should it be aggregator's responsibility to alert them?
  • Monetization: Undeniably, aggregators that attribute syndicated posts with links to source (like we do) are generating traffic for the content creator and deserve a fair compensation for this service. But who decides what is or what is not fair?

We are not the first in aggregation business and we will not be the last. Medlogs, Google, Technorati, Megite and many others are providing substantially similar services, each answering the questions above in their own way. Many are generating controversy, with Google's spat with book publishers being a recent example.

So the point is, nobody should be getting self-righteous and presume their view of what is proper and what is not to be the only valid one. Instead, the community needs some good faith discussion to develop the rules everyone can live by.

TMBN mission is to develop a site where general public can find the best medical blogs and the bloggers can promote themselves. Our original approach to aggregation has been a good faith attempt to answer the questions posed above to create a service useful to general audience, while fully crediting the bloggers (links to source are there). We made an assumption that RSS feeds are OK to use as published and avoided using them whenever blogs had clear and visible copyright disclaimers.

While most of the included bloggers either felt flattered for being listed or specifically requested inclusion, a handful expressed strong objections, calling in question our motives. We want to put this perception to rest here and now.

With our reputation at stake it is critical to set the record straight and prove our good faith. Here is the new policy by issue:

  • Motivation: Promotion and traffic for bloggers. Navigation and search for audience. Fair revenue sharing.
  • Inclusion: Opt-in 100%. Owner must take action to participate. We do not want any feed that the owner does not want included.
  • RSS & Excerpts: Owner is responsible for providing the feed that will be published "as-is". Owner decides what gets reproduced.
  • Implementation: Owner creates an account with our service and uses provided tools to install the feed and create blog description.
  • Monetization: Members can get a share of AdSense revenue from their pages by supplying their publisher ID.

Suffice to say the software update that will enable bloggers to claim their feeds is not up yet but is expected in the matter of weeks. We are going to post further details on our program for bloggers at that point.

In the meantime, if you do want to participate, please register for an account. If you want to have your feed removed, let us know. If you have questions or suggestions post them using the comment form.

We are here to be of service to bloggers and readers. We are happy to address any and all concerns.

UPDATE #1: Barbados Butterfly wrote a follow up post wondering what the fuss is all about. Well, it is about guarding TMBN good name.

UPDATE #2: Well, looks like now (03/16/2006) there is a legal precedent vindicating our position after all: Google wins a court battle

UPDATE #3: Shahid Shah (The Healthcare Guy) looks into the matter, advising bloggers on how to handle disputes of this sort.

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Comments (9)

Submitted by Steve Beller PhD on Mon, 03/13/2006 - 11:23am.

IMHO,  think we ought to give the content aggregator a try and see how it goes. The 5 points of good-faith policy seems to cover the concerns. As long as objections can be raised should its execution raise further concern, I don't see a downside. 

Steve Beller, Ph.D.
http://stevebeller.blogspot.com

Submitted by Gary Levin M.D. (not verified) on Mon, 03/13/2006 - 5:55pm.

Unbelievable, I applaud Hippocrates for his work.   For those of you who want to make money on the internet, or in health care consulting I can give you the names of several MLM networking groups that deal in supplements.

Our healthcare system is 'dying on the vine'.  This healthy and free exchange of ideas is a breath of fresh air.

Keep up the great work...Hippocrates.

 

Submitted by hippocrates on Mon, 03/13/2006 - 11:28pm.

With all respects to the Intellectual Property (IP) rights, it is as important to point out the responsibilities. Consider responsibilities required to make other types of IP enforceable:

Copyright: You must include visible notice indicating that the work is copyrighted, attributing to author.

Patent: You must file application by all rules of patent office and prove it to be useful, innovative and unobvious.

Trade Secret: You must prove that you have taken reasonable precautions to keep your proprietary info really secret.

Trademark: You must actively use the trademark to avoid losing your exclusivity rights (dilution).

Blogs & RSS: ???

If blog / RSS is to be regulated under existing laws, it is clear that owners should at least post a declaration of what they believe is proper vs. improper use. Another variable blogger can and should control is the formatting of their RSS feed.

Unfortunately many bloggers do not think about these issues until they come across a use of their feed they disagree with...

Submitted by Shahid Shah (not verified) on Tue, 03/14/2006 - 7:09am.

Dmitriy, as a fellow blogger I agree with the comment you made above:

Unfortunately many bloggers do not think about these issues until they come across a use of their feed they disagree with...

In general I know I don't like something only when I see it and I agree that we bloggers really do need to probably put a "approved use" or something like that into my blogs so it's a bit clearer.

By the way, I've written up an article about this content aggregation issue over at The Healthcare IT Guy. While the issue is important, I think it's disappointing that you've been raked over the coals for it.

Submitted by Carsten (not verified) on Tue, 03/14/2006 - 9:38pm.

"Hippocrates,"

Your interpretation of U.S. Copyright law differs significantly from the U.S. Copyright's Office's.

"The way in which copyright protection is secured is frequently misunderstood. No publication or registration or other action in the Copyright Office is required to secure copyright.

Copyright is secured automatically when the work is created.

The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U. S. law, although it is often beneficial."

Therefore, all blogs are implicitly copyrighted, (unless they display a notice to the contrary), even without a copyright symbol which you erroneously stated was a requirement. Please see: Copyright Basics for further education.

Submitted by Carsten (not verified) on Tue, 03/14/2006 - 9:43pm.

The whole situation is unfortunate, but a little common courtesy and common sense would have gone a long way in avoiding it.

Submitted by hippocrates on Wed, 03/15/2006 - 12:08am.

You are right that in case of copyright, a notice is optional. But it is a common courtesy.

However, copyright has many limitations which are very often subject to legitimate dispute (fair use):

http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#107

There are no legal precedents for the fair use of blogs / RSS and TMBN has no interest in becoming one.

Submitted by Carsten (not verified) on Wed, 03/15/2006 - 12:30am.

A difference of opinions, I guess. In my view, it would be courteous for the person wishing to redistribute a potentially copyrighted work to contact the author of that work for rights.

And as far as Fair Use:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

Continued...

Since full content is being reproduced for a commercial purpose, I doubt that it would be considered fair use. I use fair use all the time on my blog - quoting a sentence or two from various web sources (with proper attribution), in order to comment or criticize what is being discussed. This varies greatly from simply copying full content that someone else created, and trying to monetize it.

And don't worry, I don't think anyone has the intention of suing you. My blog was not aggregated here (either because of the copyright message, or because what I write really isn't all that interesting), so I would have no reason to. For the record, I think the new opt-in model is a much better idea, and probably the one you should have started with, as this is the route other public revenue-generating aggregators (i.e. Medlogs) have gone.

Submitted by hippocrates on Wed, 03/15/2006 - 1:10am.

That is what I meant by using "gray area" term on BB's blog. There is a law with different possible interpretations and no consensus upheld by courts and/or legislative bodies.

Yes, our original interpretation has been broad. It  may be legal under news reporting exception. Or publication of RSS feed might be construed as implicit license grant. But this is not something I want to be fighting over.

I appreciate your support of our new approach. Hope this proves that our intentions are honest.



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