Let me preface this with the standard disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.
But that doesn’t prevent me from having an opinion…
RSS, by it’s very name, was developed for syndication – the act of aggregating and/or republishing the content published in the feed. There’s a problem that results from the tension between those two efforts: aggregating for personal convenience, and republishing for commercial or other purposes.
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What’s not as obvious, is that many websites use, or re-publish, information found in RSS feeds. News sites, such as Yahoo News and Google News often take much of their information from RSS feeds provided by other sources, and republish it on their own sites. Even the RSS feed provided by Ask Leo! was republished on sites like Connor’s Web Guide.
Personally, while aggregating for personal convenience might be the most common use of RSS today (that’s really just a gut feel, I could be wrong), that’s not where it came from. Since there’s no way in the technology to restrict it to one type of use or another, thinking that you can is just unrealistic. RSS is about republishing. If you don’t want your content republished, don’t put it in an RSS feed.
Or to put it another way: In my opinion if you put something into RSS, you are implicitly asking for it to be syndicated and distributed.
Note that’s not a legal stance; like I said, I’m no lawyer. It’s a practical stance. Your RSS feed is going to get republished. And to me it’s not clear that it shouldn’t.
Does that mean RSS is bad? Heck no! Ask Leo! publishes several RSS feeds that are specifically designed to do both: act as user convenience, and be republished by whomever might care to do so. It’s even spelled out in the Terms and Conditions. I specifically don’t publish full articles because I know I am being republished, and in fact could not avoid being republished without pulling the feed. Rather than railing against the inevitable, I’m using it to my, and my reader’s, advantage.
Is public aggregation bad? In my opinion, not by definition. There are good websites and bad websites. Some make the internet better, some make it worse. That applies regardless of how they derive their content. There are public aggregation sites that definitely add value. How? By pulling together related information about certain topics that people might otherwise not find. Ultimately it serves both internet user – by providing the aggregated resources – and the information source – by sending that internet user that otherwise would not have found the source.
Should search engines penalize such sites? Again, not by definition. They should weigh more heavily sites that provide the information that people are searching for. That’s what search engines are all about. If an public aggregation site provides the information, great. If a public aggregation site provides the pathway to the information, I would hope that the SE’s would rank the source of the information higher than the aggregation, but we know that may or may not always happen. Regardless, the internet user benefits from the many ways that information is available to them.
Because the “rules” of RSS are at best vague and subject to wild and varied interpretation, it pays to tread carefully when republishing RSS feeds. Asking permission seems the safest, as does checking for copyright statements on the originating site.
On the flip side, if you publish an RSS feed, don’t count on others to ask permission and/or check your copyright statement. Assume you will be republished, and, as appropriate, turn that to your advantage.