"Pittsburghs News"

There's a new Pittsburgh blog-aggregator in town: http://pittsburghsnews.com, which appears to be part of a cluster of similar urban blog aggregators elsewhere in the US. The proprietors of the service are picking up local site feeds on an ad hoc basis. So far, for example, Pittsblog isn't part of the plan.

The question is whether this sort of activity is kosher (an appropriate phrasing, given that Passover starts tonight!). The answer, I think, is that no one is completely sure.

Before getting to the legal question, consider the pro's and con's. To start with, Pittsburgh News isn't and doesn't plan to be just an aggregator. The site will serve ads. That means that Pittsburgh News may derive ad revenue from visits to content that the blogger created. If the home blog also serves ads, that means that Pittsburgh News is competing for the ad revenue that the blogger might otherwise keep. And perhaps worst of all, if the home blog is part of a marketing strategy (a small business that blogs, for example), grabbing the feed and making it available through an aggregator may defeat the marketing point, since the content isn't surrounded by the rest of the content at the home site.

On the other hand, if a blogger makes a site feed available, presumably the blogger intends that other people will pick up that feed and read the blog via the feed, rather than by visiting the blog. If you don't want aggregators to pick up your stuff, it's easy enough to disable the feed. Moreover, a lot of people who don't include ads or use their blogs for business might welcome the additional readership for the content.

If a blogger objects to the aggregator picking up the feed, and if the aggregator goes ahead anyway, what does the law say? Not surprisingly, the answer is: not much. The aggregator faces both potential copyright problems and potential trademark problems. A handful of somewhat older cases dealt with "framing" and linking to website content. For the most part, merely linking to content is now regarded as acceptable. "Framing" is a legal problem if the framing site suggests sponsorship by or affiliation with the originating site. (The new "Perfect 10" suit against Google has the potential to make framing a bigger legal problem for aggregators.) Google has won a couple of recent lower court decisions involving Google's cache, which raises related issues. If you voluntarily put content on the web, you can't be surprised or harmed by the fact that Google stores it in its cache. Some technical resources may be useful as legal points: An exclusion header (robots.txt file) is both technically effective, up to a point, and legally effective, in that knowingly bypassing a robots.txt header may trigger liability for unauthorized access to a site or server. If you disable your site feed, in all likelihood it's not acceptable for someone else to create one for you without your permission.

In the blogosphere, however, I'm not aware of any litigation over the "unauthorized use of a site feed." Some time back, a tiff erupted over the request by Marty Schwimmer, a blogging trademark lawyer, that Bloglines stop carrying Marty's site feed. Marty objected to Bloglines' plan to sell ads, which might promote services in competition with Marty's trademark law practice. Bloglines complied, but Marty took a lot of heat over his request. No suit was ever filed.

Pittsburgh News says that it will offer an "opt out" option to any local blogger who wants out of its site. If the site keeps the promise, that's likely to solve most of the legal conundrum. (One could ask, though, why this isn't an "opt in" program. I think that I know the answer, but one could still ask.) As a practical matter, my recommendation would be to join Pittsburgh News, or not, depending on whether you care about controlling your readership, your traffic, and your business. The legal question is a close one, and unless there's a lot of money or a big principle at stake, it's unlikely to be one worth pursuing.

Comments

4 Responses to ""Pittsburghs News""

Anonymous said... 4/12/2006 3:00 PM

Pittsblog is a feed now

Gene said... 4/12/2006 4:22 PM

I often blog about poker, and I know from experience that aggreagators can at times be, uh, aggrevating. Can't believe I said that.

A number of these aggregators just grabbed my posts (along with stuff from other poker bloggers), didn't link or give credit, and splattered ads all over their site. Fortunately a number of my friends are extrememly 'Net savvy and were able to get these sites to cease and desist, usually by threat and bluster.

But even those aggregators that link back and even play up our blogs are problematic. Poker is hot right now, lots of online sites offer cash for signups and ad placement, so it's no big deal to create a site and tack on the ads. Throw in some content and you might be able to make a few bucks with little effort. It's not like most of these aggregators exist to make it easier for folks to find information they're interested in--they just want to get you attention long enough to make a few nickels.

It's possible that PittsburghNews is trying to actually provide a service beyond making a little cash then shutting down. A site that honestly wants to act as a clearinghouse for some niche topic, I wouldn't mind them grabbing my feed so long as they linked back to me. It's another way for readers to find me. But if they just snatch my stuff in order to make a quick buck, that's when the kicking and screaming starts.

Mark Stroup said... 4/13/2006 7:44 AM

I prize the open-ness of the internet, but I get the point. I wish I knew more about feeds. I know there's a way to limit certain content to paying customers. I also think there might be a way to spoof content. Like so . . .

myblog
//Spoof content for undiscriminating aggregators:

entry -- A dozen monkeys have stolen your shorts. /entry

//Real content for paying and screened aggregators:

realentry -- To make money in poker you must not let on what you have in your hand. /realentry
/myblog

Not the best of examples, but I hope you get the point.

RichW said... 4/13/2006 9:22 AM

I don't know if I'd be all that concerned - from a design standpoint that site is a total mess. Unreadable to the point where it's highly doubtful (IMO) they'll get any traction.

Then again, I'm still annoyed at the pghblogger.org redesign. It's still buggy and more difficult to navigate now than the previous version.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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