Following up on the RSS/Copyright debate

In the past few weeks, I’ve gotten several fresh calls, four in fact (some out of the blue, some from people I know well) about RSS, aggregation, and copyright issues. I think the matter continues to have traction and importance. Two follow-ups:

- I never managed, somehow, to see a very fine reply from Nathan Yergler to a post of my own a few months ago. I had proposed a series of 5 licenses specific to syndicated online sources. (I understand that Nathan works for CC in a technical job but was not writing as a CC employee.) His sense is that there is a need for more explicit licensing of citizen-generated content, but that CC licenses (and other things, like full copyright and the public domain) already cover the five variants that I had in mind. It’s a nice argument. I have to think about whether I agree in full — there are reasons why CC Attribution 2.5 may not get the job done in full for all users, say — but if he’s right, then we’d need no new licenses, but just a campaign to get people to know about the options and to use them in ways that reflect their desires related to aggregation and re-use of their content. (Apologies, Nathan, that I’m just getting to reply now, but I managed to miss it the first time; it was a strong argument.)

- Ethan Zuckerman had a terrific post, and engendered more discussion, on just this topic. As Ethan writes, “I want to see Creative Commons succeed. I share Larry Lessig’s concern that artists of all sorts need material to enter the public domain so that we can comment, remix, repurpose and create. I release (with very rare exceptions) everything I do under CC in the vague hope that someone else will find it useful. But widespread abuse of content published under CC licenses will make creators – me included – reluctant to release content under them.”

These posts prompted me to reflect on another matter much on my mind, which is the difference between holding intellectual property rights in the first place and in enforcing them. Admittedly: I am not a fan of a strong view of copyright. Nor, for that matter, do I think may forms of patents make much sense at all, at least in anything like the form that they currently take. That is not to say, though, that I think it’s immoral or otherwise bad to hold IP rights. I think that authors or recording artists or those who make movies should be compensated; I’m not a fan of piracy. The fact that things are right now out of whack in the IP realm (see Lessig’s permission culture argument, among many other good articulations of the problem, and any number of people who have pointed out silly patents getting issued) and the fact that pre-digital IP laws are looking a bit long in the tooth in a world packed with digital natives do not change the fact that I want there to be an incentive to create and for fairness to reign in the world (i.e., for artists and inventors to be able to make a living).

What I’m coming to think is that, absent systemic reform, holding IP rights, some of which, like copyright, attach automatically, is not the primary issue. The issue is much more about what rights we choose to enforce against others and how we do it. The issue is also whether we have a system of accountability where, when we do give away some rights that otherwise would attach, we can hold others to the rights we’ve chosen to retain. This is a sticky problem, especially when choices about enforcement could, recursively I suppose, affect those rights themselves. (An issue for another day, but: this is true also of the tiny start-up that holds a software patent for defensive purposes, to create freedom of action against incumbents, and perhaps who licenses it to other firms for similar purposes. The issue is whether those rights are exercised in an appropriate manner.)

I think a key next step in the RSS and copyright discussion may not be new licenses (if Mr. Yergler is right; or perhaps tweaked ones, if that would help; or perhaps repackaged ones, so ordinary people can figure it out), but rather 1) a clearer common understanding of what people mean when they in fact license their works in this fashion and 2) appropriate systems to enforce those rights when they’re being flagrantly violated. Of course, the copyright system works just fine on this second score (perhaps too well, sometimes!), but I suppose that those of us who are wildly supportive of CC as an essential add-on to the copyright regime may have to be willing to step up and file cease-and-desist letters where necessary (polite ones, perhaps!), even as distateful as that may seem. A great deal, it seems to me, hangs in the balance of getting it right, if the trends in creativity online, syndication, search, and aggregation continue on their current trajectory.

7 thoughts on “Following up on the RSS/Copyright debate

  1. [...] Following up on the RSS/Copyright debate as we ponder ways to enable and encourage syndication of public media programs and metadata we’ve talked about tiers of licenses – open for noncommercial end-user use and mashup, and perhaps negotiated for commercial reuse (tags: rss ddcgroup) [...]

  2. [...] One other fact to be noted. Large companies in the ICT space — IBM, Microsoft, HP, Sun, whomever — have massive-scale patenting operations. Some are newer to the patenting game but getting geared up, like Google. These companies have patent portfolios in the thousands or tens of thousands, with claims many times that many. IBM alone has over 31,000 patents and applies for thousands more each year. In the Web 2.0 space, Apple has begun to publish a series of applications. Google has applied for patents related to embedding ads in RSS feeds. No doubt the Intellectual Ventures team is working in this space, or will soon. These entities are far from alone — patent applications related to RSS and other Web 2.0 technologies are coming out all the time. As I’ve written before, there’s a difference between obtaining IP rights and enforcing them, so it’s not certain that this emerging thicket of patents will preclude innovation. Apple may never sue anyone at all for infringement of the many claims that may well be granted to it. But should an entrepreneur run that risk? [...]

  3. [...] Many business models in the Web 2.0 industry in particular hinge on the outcome of this uncertainty. A VC has long written about “the rights issues” at the core of many businesses that are built, or will be built, on what may be the sand — or what may turn out to be a sound foundation — of “micro-chunked” content. Lawrence Lessig has written the most definitive work on this topic, especially in the form of his book, Free Culture. The RSS-and-copyright debate is one additional angle on this topic. Creative Commons licenses can help to clarify the rights associated with micro-chunked works embedded in, or syndicated via, RSS feeds. [...]

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