Permission to Speak Freely on RSS

After a few webloggers objected to his practice of reproducing their entries in full on his link site, Robert Scoble tied himself into an interesting knot, claiming that RSS is a format that only exists for software to reuse and remix, thus justifying his actions:

RSS is a community syndication system. If you don't like your content being reused in weird, dangerous, wacky ways DO NOT PUT YOUR CONTENT INTO RSS!!! Hint: RSS isn't for humans. It's for syndication and resyndication systems to use.

It's an opt-in system. If you don't want it reused, don't put it in! Easy. End of discussion.

Scoble's right to describe syndication as opt-in, and the availability of content in an XML format makes it easier to work with than HTML. But as we've seen with Google Toolbar and Greasemonkey, HTML's not exactly difficult for user agent software to parse. The markup's out there in plain text, making it a lot closer to RSS than to a reuse-inhibiting format like PDF.

One of the looming controversies for syndication is the legality of feed reuse and republication in the absence of an explicit license tag such as those offered by Creative Commons.

Before he shuttered his linkblog, Scoble seemed to be acting from the presumption that if a feed is online, he can do anything he wants with it, because the format's intended for reuse.

I don't mind that personally, because I want to encourage republication of my syndicated feeds, even on commercial sites. I just added the Creative Commons Attribution license to my feeds to make this policy official.

But in a general sense, it seems inarguable that the availability of a feed grants no legal rights to reuse its items, beyond fair use.

A feed is a copyrighted work. If a feed provider wants to forbid commercial reuse or public redistribution of the full text of items, that's something we ought to respect.

If high-profile reusers like Scoble make this a big deal, we'll take the informal situation today -- where feeds are republished in the absence of explicit permission -- and turn it into one where toolmakers have to examine license tags before allowing the functionality.

Perhaps this is a good thing, but it goes against an important principle I learned as a teen: It's always easier to ask forgiveness than to seek permission.


One thing you've gotta look at it is accepted prior usage. RSS's accepted prior usage is quite a bit different than HTML's.

But, I stopped doing my link blog anyway and am gonna stay out of this argument. It's not one that has many winners.

Unfortunately, the negative load it was bringing to my life just wasn't worth it.

UseNet's Copyright Myths FAQ seems about right for RSS. Myth #3 appears to cover the replication and republishing question, as "a matter of some debate" and "Furthermore it is very difficult for an implicit licence to supersede an explicitly stated licence that the copier was aware of."

Nice link, but reading it caused an ugly flashback to waging interminable legal arguments with my fellow know-nothing laymen on Usenet.

The copyright notice on that FAQ is kinda funny:

Permission is granted to freely print, unmodified, up to 100 copies of the most up to date version of this document from, or to copy it in off-the-net electronic form. On the net/WWW, however, you must link here rather than put up your own page. If you had not seen a notice like this on the document, you would have to assume you did not have permission to copy it. This document is still protected by you-know-what even though it has no copyright notice.

Nice site! | | | | | | | | |

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